Joe Russo’s phér•bŏney

cover artThis debut solo album by drummer Joe Russo was released digitally in the summer of 2019, but I’m just catching up with it in time for its release on vinyl. phér•bŏney is the most eclectic set of tunes I’ve reviewed in quite a while.

Brooklyn-based Russo has played live and on record with a wide array of acts over the past two decades, including Cass McCombs, Craig Finn, Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon, Gene Ween Band and Furthur featuring Phil Lesh and Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead. He’s also had his own projects including the “post-jazz” Benevento-Russo Duo (with Marco Benevento on keyboards), his own Grateful Dead revival band, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, and the Colorado-based free jazz-rock collective Fat Mama.

Looking at that list, it’s no surprise phér•bŏney is so eclectic. Not merely a drummer, Russo composed most of these pieces, and plays guitar, keyboards and more as well as drums. Collaborators include saxophonists Stuart Bogie and Erik Lawrence and guitarists Josh Kaufman and Robbie Mangano.

So what about the music? It’s largely instrumental, with dreamy vocals on a few tracks (more if you count breathy wordless vocals like on the sunny “Can’t Wink.” There’s also a funky cover of Antônio Carlos Jobim’s worldwide hit “Waters Of March,” with the vocals heavily processed so they sound like a giant from Jupiter singing from deep in the gas giant’s pressurized atmosphere – think “opposite of Alvin & the Chipmunks.”

The tunes tend to be built around electronica, but by the time all the layers are added the effect is mostly analog with some electronic touches. Like the Afrobeat-influenced “Molly And Anni,” which is full of guitars and wailing saxes laid over a driving beat. The opening track “phér•bŏney Love Theme” starts off with nothing but a skittery synth melody, but that soon gives way to an Ennio Morricone-like pastiche of booming percussion, catchy guitar-organ licks, tenor sax wails and more in a deep wall of sound that comes to an abrupt end.

Cinematic is another adjective that will come up a lot as you listen to this. “Perfectabilitarians” is a great neologism, and also a languid and shimmery indie-rock song with Russo’s voice low in the instrumental mix, which swells to a dramatic crescendo. Also in the cinematic realm is the futuristic James Bond in space with Frank Zappa soundtrack that is “Elfman,” Russo’s nod to prolific film composer Danny Elfman.

A couple pieces put the electronica right out front. “You’re So Delicate” is a light-fingered tune that stops and starts, built entirely of layered synthesizer sounds that run the spectrum. And the final track, “Wow!Signal” is likely to elicit just that reaction: Wow! Leading off with what sounds like a home recording of piano chording, it quickly and dramatically segues into a prog-rock freakout worthy of Yes at its zenith. The multiple analog synth tracks (sounds like a Moog or Arp to me) are layered with piano and organ, Russo wailing on the kit, plus downward guitar arpeggios and booming deep sax runs adding to the cacophony. Heavy, man!

So. That’s entertaining. Not much like the majority of music I listen to, but it’s good to stray out of the comfort zone. These are some serious musicians having a bit of fun, which almost always results in something worth listening to. phér•bŏney is definitely that. Streaming on the usual platforms, vinyl available from Royal Potato Family.

(Royal Potato Family, 2019)

About Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.