As far as curious album titles go, Overstep, the fourth solo effort from Phish bassist Mike Gordon, is up there. The title would suggest that Gordon might be trying to shed his groove rock skin, or at least stretch a bit beyond it. But as the old saying goes, tigers don’t change their stripes, and leopards don’t change their spots. Similarly, Gordon can’t run from his musical pedigree, not after 30 years anchoring America’s reigning jam band of choice.
Despite the services of outside producer Paul Kolderie and a fresh crop of studio players, there’s very little coloring outside the lines on Overstep. Musically, the record is every bit as indebted to funk, jazz, bluegrass, and rock as anything you’ll find in Phish’s eclectic musical grab bag, while Gordon’s lyrics also are expectedly Phish-like. “I found a good way to get my head unwound/ The next thing I know I’m up in the treetops,” Gordon sings over the tickle of an acoustic guitar on album opener “Ether”. If that’s not a page torn straight out of the Phish lyric book, I don’t know what is.
But even though much of Overstep settles into Gordon’s musical safe zone, it begs the question of how much that really matters. Despite the relative lack of surprises, there’s still enough diversity and technical proficiency at play here to grab your ear. One minute, Gordon’s jamming soulfully on the upbeat “Jumping”; the next, he’s fleshing out reggae sounds that get little more than a cursory glance at his day job (“Yarmouth Road”). There are happy-go-lucky funk rock nuggets (“Paint”) and lean, acoustic-driven spells (“Different World”), genre mash-ups that defy easy categorization (“Feel” splits the difference between dub and spaghetti western ramble), and still others that walk a relatively straight pop rock path (“Long Black Line”).
It’s hard to unlearn what you’ve known for so long, and Overstep, much like Gordon’s preceding solo efforts, offers evidence against the idea that a solo record needs to be a daring break from tradition. There’s an undeniable feeling of sameness that coats the record’s 11 tracks, but Overstep finds the bassist in reliably fine form, even if he’s adhering to a formula that’s been rehearsed plenty of times over. The end result is a record that will play as music to any Phish fan’s ear, even if it’s a bit too familiar to truly inspire.
Essential Tracks: “Jumping”, “Paint”, and “Long Black Line”