The arrival early last year of the debut album from Nick D’Virgilio, Neal Morse and Ross Jennings, Troika, was a breath of fresh air. The three progressive rock icons put aside the bombast and the complexities to channel their inner Crosby Stills and Nash. The fact that it was such a delightful endeavour warmed the cockles of my heart. Each song jumped out at the listener as something special, like a group of your best buds jamming and singing together on your sofa. When the follow-up album was announced, I couldn’t have been more thrilled and jumped at the chance to hear it. Unlike its predecessor, Sophomore turns out to be more of a slow-burn. I had to stick with this one for a while before it fully revealed its charms, and I’m glad I did.
Neal Morse’s Hard to be Easy is a great introduction to the album, with Jennings and D’Virgilio singing along in three-part harmony for the entirety of the song. The blend of their voices is warm and smooth, like a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter night, and just as sweet. The simple acoustic guitar and shaker arrangement that starts the song builds throughout, almost stealthily. In response, the vocals feel stronger and more dramatic. The crisp production brings out the nuance of each voice, while the uncluttered arrangements keep the focus on the vocals. Nick D’Virgilio next offers up Linger at the Edge of My Memory. The nimble acoustic intro segues into a beautiful waltz-time tune where the author takes the lead vocal with the others providing sturdy backing voices. The instrumentation is especially tasteful, with an elegant electric piano adding to the lightness of the tune. D’Virgilio’s drumming plays around with the beat, adding more interest and reminding you that these guys are prog musicians after all. Rounding out the opening salvo is the Ross Jennings tune Tiny Little Fires. Not only is Jennings the lead vocalist, he handles all the instruments except for percussion and organ. The odd-meter chorus and interludes juxtapose nicely with the common time verses, making this my favourite song on the album. The exuberant performance belies the lyric about a difficult relationship. You can tell that the three amigos are having a blast with this one.
Right Where You Should Be comes across as Neal’s attempt at a country crossover hit, complete with pedal steel courtesy of Gideon Klein. The “do do do’s” that open the song seem a bit much, like feigned casualness. Luckily, the three-part harmonies throughout give the song the lift it needs. Much more successful is another Morse contribution, The Weary One. Morse’s solo lead vocal drips with the weariness he sings about, heightened by Gideon Kelin’s sympathetic string arrangement. D’Virgilio’s and Jennings’ backing vocals on the chorus emphasise the spareness of the rest of the tune, adding to the overwhelming sense of melancholy. The only wrong move here is the whistling at the end, which simply seems out of place. As if to atone for the downer vibe, the drummer’s Mama goes for the rock end of the spectrum. Each vocalist takes turns trading off lines until joining up at the chorus. The electric guitars through a talk box lend a seventies vibe, but somehow never quite hit the mark for me. I’m Not Afraid is more successful, with Nick playing most of the instruments, including a ukelele. The song has some interesting melodic twists and turns, particularly in the bridge. The instrumental interlude seems somehow disconnected from the rest of the song, relying on some progginess to mix things up. It works well enough until the intro chords come round again and Morse attempts a trying-to-be-cool rap, complete with fake laugh, that stops the momentum dead in its tracks. Too bad, because the choral vocals that follow really are cool.
DM&J seem to realise the power of their unison vocals, and they use it to great effect on Weighs Me Down. Jennings’ simple acoustic arrangement gives the passionate delivery space to shine and show the vocal dexterity of each singer. Walking on Water is another fine example of the Haken singer’s songwriting chops. Something about the song has a Yes vibe, circa Fragile, but without ever feeling derivative. Jennings plays all instruments except for drums, conjuring flashes of Roundabout in his performance, even in the way he moves from solo to group vocals. Its as if Jennings came to the sessions prepared to show up his buddies by exhibiting the proggier side of CSN. The album proper closes out with Anywhere the Wind Blows. Morse’s solo vocal has more than a touch of Spock’s Beard about it and this could easily have been an outtake from the Snow sessions, with D’Virgilio and Jennings contributing occasional harmonies and the obligatory ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’.
The album includes alternate versions of two tunes – Right Where You Should Be and The Weary One. Both are acoustic guitar and harmony versions, beautiful in their own way. There is an intimacy to these versions that makes you feel like you are listening in on something special, but it’s not quite there just yet. You can hear the guys feeling their way around. Interesting, but the final versions are the superior ones.
As I mentioned in the opening, Sophomore does not have the immediacy of the debut album. This time around you know what to expect. Still, listening to three incredible vocalists weave their way around one another like the seasoned pros they are is a true treat for the ear. Aside from a few minor missteps, this is an album you can play for your prog-avoiding significant other and both enjoy. I’m already looking forward to the next one.
01. Hard to be Easy (5:09)
02. Linger at the Edge of My Memory (5:04)
03. Tiny Little Fires (3:32)
04. Right Where you Should Be (3:43)
05. The Weary One (4:45)
06. Mama (3:52)
07. I’m Not Afraid (3:57)
08. Weighs Me Down (4:12)
09. Walking on Water (5:18)
10. Anywhere the Wind Blows (4:29)
11. Right Where You Should Be (Alternative Version) (3:43)
12. The Weary One (Alternative Version) (4:46)
Total Time – 52:30
Nick D’Virgilio – Vocals, Drums, Percussion, Guitar, Bass, Ukelele
Neal Morse – Vocals, Acoustic, Slide & Electric Guitars, Bass, B3 Organ, Piano, Electric Piano, Talk Box
Ross Jennings – Vocals, Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Bass, Keyboards, Xylophone, Ebow
Gideon Klein – Pedal Steel, Strings
Yulia Jennings, Sophia D’Virgilio – Additional Vocals (on Weighs Me Down)
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: U.S.A./U.K.
Date of Release: 10th November 2023