When Sam Cooke first played a Bob Dylan recording for Bobby Womack in the early 1960s, the young R&B singer didn’t understand it. Cooke explained to Womack that times had changed: a singer’s voice would no longer be judged on its prettiness, but instead on its honesty.
Cooke’s prediction was right, of course: in the ensuing half-century, in the rock era and beyond, the world’s Bob Dylans have had at least as much success as its Sam Cookes. Many modern singers who would never have made it with their voices alone – Win Butler, Justin Vernon, and Stephen Malkmus, to name just a few – have nonetheless found ways to channel what emotion and musicality their voices uniquely offer, turning their vocal chords into some of their greatest assets.
On Mike Gordon’s early solo albums, he seemed to have accomplished something similar. His mellow baritone on “Take Me Out” set the chilled out, effortless vibe that made 2003’s “Inside In” a success; his breezy, laid-back vocal take on “Andelmans’ Yard,” off of 2008’s “The Green Sparrow,” perfectly complemented the tune’s adventurous acoustic guitar and subtle island percussion. To put it bluntly, Gordon had found a wide variety of innovative ways to use his below-average voice to enhance his music.
All of which makes his decision to adopt a belting, overly rehearsed vocal style on his fourth album,”Overstep,” entirely confounding. From the album’s first sung lines, which interrupt “Ether”’s beautiful, haunting doubled acoustic guitar intro, his voice only gets in the way. It sounds not like the essence of Mike Gordon, but like someone’s idea of what a rock singer ought to sound like. As a result, the album’s compelling compositions are rendered far less listenable.
Those compositions represent a change of pace for Gordon. Having settled into a songwriting style on “Green Sparrow” and “Moss” that was mellow, cerebral, and at times jazzy, these tunes are hooky, gritty, and funky. Where many songs on “Moss” felt like Kottke/Gordon outtakes reimagined for a full band, these are tunes that require a rock band. While some tracks, particularly “Face,” have an unfortunate Blues Traveler-Spin Doctors vibe – which is only reinforced by Murawski’s generic, Chan Kinchla-esque soloing – the upbeat energy inherent in these songs will serve them well in the live setting. On the flip side, these are recordings, one imagines, that will therefore come to pale in comparison to the superior live renditions that will surface.
This album is also, in contrast to the bass-oriented tunes on “Moss,” considerably more guitar-forward. And where Gordon’s previous albums have felt quintessentially Mike, this one is plainly the result of a deeper level of collaboration with guitarist Scott Murawski. Not only did Murawski share songwriting duties with Gordon, but Gordon has chosen to give him the microphone on three tunes, including the closing track, “Surface” – a decision that was generous to Murawski, but not to the rest of us. Murawski’s voice is thin and dull; its main asset is in making Gordon’s seem bearable by comparison.
While Murawski has been a collaborator for several years, producer Paul Q. Kolderie is a new addition to Gordon’s tiny little world. Having racked up most of his producing credits in the 90s with bands like The Lemonheads, Morphine, and on Radiohead’s debut, “Pablo Honey,” Kolderie has offered Gordon a sound that is layered, punchy, and clean bordering on antiseptic. While the audacious acoustic guitar lines from Gordon’s previous records have stuck around, the spontaneous, living room vibe is gone: no performance feels like a first take, and no song sounds as if it were played by a live band. Though this results in some compelling moments, it undoubtedly prevents many others.
There are clear highlights throughout the album, but each of them comes with a caveat. The vocal and instrumental arrangements on the chorus of “Jumping” are fantastic, but they are negated by Murawski’s unfavorable vocal performance in the verses. “Paint” has a wonderful, “Come Together”-like groove, and a short middle section with some excellent doubled vocals; however, Gordon’s flat vocal performance through the rest of the song detracts from the track’s quality. The drum machine over the “Heart Shaped Box” chord progression on “Different World” is an interesting change of pace; the prominent acoustic guitar part and sped-up breakdown outro make the track sound almost like a demo, a quality that the album could use more of. But again, Gordon’s vocals keep this song from being an unqualified success.
There is good news in “Overstep” for Mike Gordon’s fans. The creative renaissance he began just over a decade ago is clearly still in progress, as his songwriting proves. He still has his special Mike sauce, and to some degree, as he sings in “Tiny Little World,” “every chef knows it’s the sauce that makes the dish.” But every chef also knows that the dish is only as good as its weakest ingredient. And on “Overstep,” many of Gordon’s weakest ingredients are the most prominent.
Overstep is out 2/25 on Megaplum/ATO Records. Order it from DryGoods.