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Published: 2002/07/23
by Jesse Jarnow

self-titled – Vida Blue

Elektra Records 62782

It took me a few months to realize it, but Page McConnell's Vida Blue
album is the first post-Phish album – which is to say Trey Anastasio,
Oysterhead, and the Live Phish series – that I haven't reacted to
with either a wave of bent philosophic nostalgia or vague quasi-historical
justification. My reaction, moreless, was of the blank sort — but, I think,
only because the album didn't fit gracefully and snugly in with some longer
musical development in the Phish world. I guess that was just my own musical
prejudices coming through, but I was stymied, moreless, until the intriguing
Vida Blue remix EP showed up in my mailbox (all of whose tracks are
available for free on VidaBlue.net).

There's a lot to like about Vida Blue. There is an elusive,
crystalline quality to much of it that I find myself latching onto – something in the keyboard sounds and the vocal melodies – like a bauble or a
bird suspended in a glass bell. Some of the song arrangements highlight this
well. On "Electra Glide", for example, the vocals double the keyboards,
which are then tripled by the introduction of a small horn section
(comprised of Phish family regulars Dave Grippo, Jennifer Hartswick, and
James Harvey). It are these little moments that attract me deeply to some of
Vida Blue.

There are also, of course, a whole lot extended fusion/electronic
instrumentals that sound like a more Miles Davis take on what bands like The
New Deal have been doing for the past few years. The playing is nice, but
the unit itself has a long way to go. While bassist Oteil Burbridge is in
surprisingly tasteful – even subdued – form, drummer Russell Batiste's
contributions are often far more heavy-handed than what the situation calls
for. A couple of minutes into "Fresh Tube", the band moves into potential
breakdown mode, keyboard washes rising and getting spacier and weirder.
Batiste doesn't let go, instead adding slightly milder versions of what
Frank Zappa used to refer to as "qualuude thunder".

McConnell's instrumental voice is what is compelling about the disc. And,
like with his lyrics (which tend to run towards the overgeneralized), what
is important is not what he is "saying" melodically, but how he is saying it
tonally. This is precisely where Vida Blue, as a band, fails. Often times,
Burbridge and Batiste respond logically, but without attention to their
tones of voice. It as if three men were conversing in a slightly darkened
room, the first man speaking in a whisper and the other two speaking loudly.
They respond linearally to what the first man has said, but disregard the
fact that he is whispering. Transcribed on paper, the dialogue of their
interaction makes perfect sense.

All of this is to say that, a lot of the time, the band doesn't follow
through on the elements of the music that I think are special and
interesting — but they do just enough to make it cool. McConnell seems
especially adept at freezing the moments within the confines of the disc's
vocal tunes, especially "Most Events Aren't Planned" and "Electra Glide".
This is precisely why I think I enjoy the remix disc better.

McConnell, Batiste, and Burbridge – despite their (sometimes) divergent
backgrounds – all basically come from the same idea of music as a live,
linear form performed by musicians interacting and communicating with each
other in real time. The unique qualities that three collectively produce on
the Vida Blue disc are perhaps better served by the production of sonic
depth, as opposed to linear development of themes. This is why the remixes – done by the likes of Bill Laswell, DJ Olive, Jamie Saft, and Mouthmotion – are cool. They, in some way, complete the music. The remixers are far more
adept at catching the neat little moments.

For the most part, McConnell has successfully averted letting Vida
Blue become purely the Keyboard Dude's solo album (though it is
definitely that). The result is an alternately stumbling and entrancing
album of modest contemporary fusion. It's not going to change the world, but
what can?

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