by Prog Nick
Some things are meant to be – they are fated, if you like. One of these is the long-standing musical relationship between Neal Morse and Nick D’Virgilio (NDV). Not only was the drummer fated to be Morse’s drummer in various projects (not the least of which was the mighty Spock’s Beard), but his voice, whether as lead vocal or used in harmony, has played a very underestimated role in Morse’s musical success. As for Ross Jennings, his voice has in the past too easily been pigeon-holed as ‘Prog Metal’. Of course, the release of the first D’Virgilio, Morse and Jennings (DMJ) album, 2022’s ‘Troika’, put these misapprehensions to rest. The first album was a top-drawer feast of CSNY-like acoustic singer-songwriter material, featuring, of course, excellent three-part harmonies.
Now in 2023, as fate would have it, the trio’s second release, ‘Sophomore’, tantalizes us with the prospect of more vocal pulchritude. But wait – there’s more. ‘Sophomore’, it turns out, quite intentionally proffers a far more diverse palette of colors and sounds than its predecessor did. The ten tracks (and two alternative versions, released as bonus tracks) are varied and explorative, whilst never departing from the core requirement of three-part harmony.
The album starts off with the uptempo and lively ‘Hard to be Easy’ which unsurprisingly continues the three-layer CSNY-type vocal precision of the first album. It has a great acoustic groove, intricate nylon guitar work and a sweet melody, delivered by the three singers at their melodic best. There is even a ‘da-da-da-dada’ CSNY-oriented interlude. No surprises there, then, but a pleasing start nonetheless.
‘Linger at the Edge of My Memory’ introduces NDV’s first lead vocal on this album and reminds us why his exceptional vocal skills were such a core reason for SB’s survival post-Neal Morse’s departure. It’s a beautifully done contemplative track showcasing NDV’s songwriting chops.
‘Tiny Little Fires’ presents the first real sign that something less traditional might be afoot here. Firstly, the song’s main riff is in 7/8 timing (Prog, anyone?) and Jennings takes the opportunity to remind us why he is one of the most versatile and excellent singers around. The idea for the song stemmed from Jennings using his son’s toy 8-note xylophone, which makes for a quirky melody with alternating time signatures. Morse plays a particularly Proggy keyboard run, and the inevitable, more Proggy, demands made by the Fates are fulfilled.
Morse takes the lead vocal mic back for ‘Right Where You Should Be’ and suddenly we find ourselves in the domain of Country Music – slide guitar and all. It is easy listening, but hardly challenging for these three maestros. ‘The Weary One’ is more introspective and Morse’s soulful voice penetrates in the most emotional manner. This is a great song delivered with complete authenticity, and those who have been beaten down by life in any way will resonate with this melody and its accompanying lyrics.
More surprise comes with ‘Mama’, which was written and sung by NDV. This is a true electric guitar rocker in the vein of Cream or The Doobie Brothers. Even Morse’s keyboard sounds and guitar solo are of those eras and styles, and when melded with NDV’s voice, this song makes for an interesting Classic Rock mix indeed.
The acoustic guitars return with ‘I’m Not Afraid’, again sung by NDV. It is at first bouncy and boppy and your foot will be tapping by its second bar. Accessible and catchy, the song very interestingly then reveals a Progressive middle eight that is in odd timing. The chord progressions are jazzy and complex. By now, it has become clear that our three protagonists have every intention of creating a more elaborate and adventurous album than ‘Troika’.
‘Weighs Me Down’ is a slow acoustic exploration that intentionally stretches the three voices to their ultimate. This is how harmonies should be sung, and one now remembers the curiosity with which the inclusion of Ross Jennings in such an acoustic and melodic project was initially met. This inclusion seems far from curious now, and rather that it was the full intention of Fate. Beautiful and searingly sad.
‘Walking On Water’ also defiantly holds DMJ’s Prog backgrounds up high. It includes complex Latin rhythms and accents under the intricate vocal arrangements, which twist and wind around each bar like vine around a staff. And then that phenomenon that has recently been missing from NMB albums is to be heard – a Neal Morse lead guitar solo with a bluesy tone. The intricacy of the song continues around Jennings’ fine voice, and all is well in the world of music.
Already released as a single, ‘Anywhere the Wind Blows’ really needs no introduction to readers of this website. Suffice it to say that the song is a masterful presentation of what acoustic vocal rock should sound like, written by Morse in ‘feel good’ mode one day at the beach. The somewhat cheesy video (of Morse driving a convertible through the countryside) does not really do the song justice. The track would fit perfectly on one of Neal’s solo acoustic albums as well.
There are alternative stripped-down versions of ‘Right Where You Belong’ and ‘The Weary One’. Both are good, but the full versions are better.
The production is clear and precise, and the album cover includes actual sophomore photographs of the three members during their school days. There is a plethora of ear-worm choruses, innovative melodies and superior composition permeating the album. Definitely edgier and more experimental than its predecessor, ‘Sophomore’ shows that DMJ have no intention of simply re-hashing CSNY and leaving it at that. There are (albeit sometimes embryonic) clear signs of experimentation and Prog-leanings that portend even more adventurous things to come. But for now, this album will do just fine.
Some things are fated, like NDV being the drummer that Neal Morse was meant to collaborate with, both on the percussive and vocal fronts. Ross Jennings, one of the most inspired vocalists around, is so versatile that he can sing anything from Yes to Van Halen (for example in Haken’s now-legendary covers sets) and indeed, this type of acoustic rock. In essence, this project was meant to be, and DMJ have already evolved from being just a CSNY-type vocal harmony group into a diverse and interesting outfit that explores several styles. Everyone’s favorite composer, my favorite drummer and one of the best singers around, have created a consistently excellent album. Call it Fate.
Released on Nov. 10th, 2023 on InsideOutMusic
Order here: https://dvirgiliomorsejennings.lnk.to/Sophomore
1. Hard To Be Easy
2. Linger At The Edge Of My Memory
3. Tiny Little Fires
4. Right Where You Should Be
5. The Weary One
7. I’m Not Afraid
8. Weighs Me Down
9. Walking On Water
10. Anywhere The Wind Blows
11. Right Where You Should be (Alternative Version)*
12. The Weary One (Alternative Version)*
*CD bonus tracks