Vermont’s Phineas Gage Project specialize in “phabulous pholk phunk” — and, apparently, cribbing, and overusing, the “ph” gag from Phish. Phonetic folly aside, the band’s latest CD, Three Phorm Live, recorded at a 2012 show in Barrington, R.I., delivers on its self-description. Well, at least two-thirds of it. Whether you find the trio’s brand of funk-grass “phabulous” depends on your predilection for acoustic versions of popular folk, country and rock songs, filtered through a faux-funk lens.
The PGP make good on their official motto, “Music for Happy Brains,” on the album’s first song, “Wondering,” one of a handful of original tunes included alongside several covers. The jammy, mandolin-fueled groove is likable enough, bouncy and bright with some three-part harmony thrown in for brain-happying measure.
Following a short interlude in which the band relays the story of the real Phineas Gage — google it — they deliver a passable version of “Walk on the Ocean.” James Kinne, Erica Stroem and Rob Williams are capable players and vocalists. Here, they do justice to one of Toad the Wet Sprocket’s hits.
Stroem takes the lead next on a cover of “Layla.” PGP’s interpretation is closer to Eric Clapton’s unplugged version than the original Derek and the Dominos incarnation. The playing is decent, the harmonies generally spot-on, but the tempo drags, sapping the song of its wounded urgency.
The pair of originals that come next serve as album highlights. “Words” has an insistent, G. Love-esque groove that suits the band’s laid-back moxie, while “Open” evokes early Dave Matthews Band. Neither song breaks any molds, lyrically or stylistically. But they’re solid enough to make one wonder why the band relies so heavily on covers, particularly given the wince-inducing moments that follow.
The CD’s second act is all cover songs, which would be fine if PGP offered an interesting perspective on their source material. But they don’t. It’s all stiff, white-bread approximations of classics such as Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet,” Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” and the most egregious phait accompli: a soulless take on the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers,” presented, of course, as “Dead Phlowers.”
Three Phorm Live by the Phineas Gage Project is available at phineasgage.com.