by Alissa Ordabai
– Senior Columnist –
Venturing to widen his ever-expanding musical horizons even further, Paul Gilbert on his new solo release is stepping outside of his stylistic comfort zone with trademark diligence. Apart from surprising his fans with unexpected jazz fusion detours, Zappa-esque experiments in mixing rock, jazz, and a vibe of a Broadway musical, he also makes earnest attempts to reveal true emotion behind the formidable chops.
When it comes to solo material, Gilbert has always been aware of his tendency to get carried away by the technical side of his craft, at times forgetting about songwriting and the emotional content of what he plays. Songwriting matters have been addressed and partially resolved on his 2009 collaboration with singer Freddie Nelson titled “United States”, where he came up with some striking melodies and commendable – albeit somewhat formulaic – songwriting. The issue of tying the inner and the outer to accurately convey inner realities is being dealt with on the record in hand.
A number titled “Bivalve Blues” is one such attempt, where Gilbert is tapping into the Hendrixian “Red House”-inspired vibe, but still comes out emotionally recumbent, although guitar players will be thrilled to hear the way he incorporates his high-tech chops into the traditional blues formula.
A cover of Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” is another try to convey inner feeling, although of a subtler kind. Or at least it’s luring to think that it was the emotional challenge of the piece that attracted Gilbert, as opposed to the unusual time signature, taking into consideration his love for technical difficulties. But despite dealing perfectly with all the tricks of the piece, Gilbert’s version sounds dry and heavy-footed compared to the airborne floatation of the original. Emi Gilbert on keyboard offers praiseworthy, perfectly executed solos, albeit with a touch of music-school-valedictorian coldness which at times borders on sterility.
There are more instances of her well-honed chops on this record, such as keyboard parts on “Put It on the Char” and “The Pronghorn”, but it is largely the same approach – chilly, scholastic exercises in technically perfect musicianship, certainly entertaining, but failing to convey a reality deeper than technique and good taste.
But when emotion gets lost among displays of technique, Gilbert opts to connect with his listener through humor – something he’s been known for throughout his career. On cuts such as the title track and “Enemies (in Jail)” he goes even further in the comicality department with nods (if not bows from the waist) to Zappa with buffoonish, tongue-in-cheek fun, fireworks of dizzying chops, changes in time signature, and the atmosphere of a prankish modern-day sophisticado concert saloon.
On a live version of “I Want to be Loved” he even manages to satirize Willie Dixon, which is either a witty or a dubious choice of a song to lampoon, depending on what the legacy of Dixon (or legacy of Muddy Waters who famously performed this song) represents to you personally. A more sombre effort is Gilbert’s cover of “Roundabout” where he extrapolates Yes’s classic with utmost respect for the original, but still sounds somewhat mechanistic, replacing the subtleties of the original keyboard parts with full-on hard rock high-tech gloss.
And despite finishing off with a cover of AC/DC’s “Go Down”, overall the record remains largely a cerebral exercise, using humour in all its varieties as a shield to avoid exposure of true feeling. That is not to say that there aren’t some inspiring moments on this release. There are some, and standout “Rain and Thunder and Lightning” is one such example – a sensitive, elegant fusion piece where flashy chops give way to contemplation, and where we get a glimpse of what an astounding artist – not simply a virtuoso – Gilbert can be when he chooses self-search over demonstrations. If Gilbert went to explore this direction further, this release could have become an entirely different affair. So far, however, we learn that old habits die hard, not matter what staggering variety of new musical forms one engages in from record to record.
Genre: rock, jazz, jazz fusion, experimental, blues, prog-rock
Paul Gilbert – guitar, vocals
Emi Gilbert – keyboards, vocals
Kelly Lemieux – bass
Thomas Lang – drums
1. Enemies (in Jail) (Gilbert)
2. Rain and Thunder and Lightning (Gilbert)
3. Vibrato (Gilbert)
4. Put It on the Char (Gilbert)
5. Bivalve Blues (Gilbert)
6. Blue Rondo a la Turk (Brubeck)
7. Atmosphere on the Moon (Gilbert)
8. The Pronghorn (Gilbert)
9. Roundabout (Anderson / Howe)
10. I Want to be Loved (Dixon)
11. Go Down (Young, Young, Scott)
Tracks 1-8 recorded in North Hollywood, May and June 2012
Tracks 9-11 recorded live on the 2012 “Fuzz Universe” European tour.
The live band is:
Paul Gilbert – guitar, vocals
Tony Spinner – guitar, vocals
Craig Martini – bass, vocals
Jeff Bowders – drums
Hardrock Haven rating: 6/10