D’VIRGILIO, MORSE & JENNINGS – Sophomore (Album Review)

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No Sophomore slump here. Unplug the guitars, lose the fancy effects, and get back to the basics. That was the approach of ’21’s “Troika” and for the most part, DMJ has made another joyful listening journey from the same mold. Nick D’Virgilio, Neal Morse and Ross Jennings return with another set of singer-songwriter material as their acoustic project continues.

For anyone who happens to have missed their debut collaboration a couple of years ago, this is not a prog supergroup. Rather, it’s a vehicle for these three to get to collaborate with some of the folkier sides of their personalities and musical influences. D’Virgilio and Morse had already been playing the likes of CSNY and Beatles tunes for years in their Spock’s Beard days, jamming to tunes they loved late at night after the concerts were over. To write an album in this style of music was nothing new for them, especially considering Morse had already released several singer songwriter solo albums over the past decade. What was a new twist was bringing Jennings into the mix. He was largely an unknown quantity for this style and Morse didn’t even know how their three voices sounded together until he received the initial mixes back from their overdubbed recordings. Fortunately, the sound was spot-on. But that’s the thing about this project – it’s all been recorded separately and the three have only gotten together in person when they recorded a couple of music videos for this new album. Not that you would know that from the way their voices and songs interweave with one another.

“Sophomore” very much follows the same path as its predecessor. There’s upbeat feel-good tunes that bring to mind those CSN moments. There’s more introspective pieces that embrace the ideology of what folk music is all about. And there’s a couple of tracks where they actually do plug some instruments in and rock out a little. The quality of songwriting is on par with the debut album, there’s no discernible drop off or elevation, nor is there a radical change in direction. Indeed, had the two albums been put together as a double album initially, no one would have batted an eye as they go hand in hand as much as “The Similitude of a Dream” and “The Great Adventure” do, in terms of the sequel matching the style of the original.

Morse bookends the album with two uplifting songs in that classic CSN style, like he did with “Everything I Am” on the debut. We start off with “Hard To Be Easy”, happy in its music but finding more strife in the lyrics. Despite the relationship turmoil described, you’ll be tapping your feet and grooving to this opening tune. Following the lead of Stephen Stills, Morse plays a wide variety of instruments including the bouncy bass lines and slide guitar leads. However, it’s his B3 organ that really drives the tune, in addition to D’Virgilio’s tasty percussion. Later on the album closes with his “Anywhere The Wind Blows”, the first single off the album, which beckons the listener to take a ride with the top down. It’s a similar instrumentation from Morse as the opening song, and one of the most rewarding on the album despite its simple structure.

“Sophomore” Album Artwork

D’Virgilio scores one of his best songs yet in “Linger At The Edge of My Memory”, a beautiful ballad sung gorgeously by D’Virgilio and making the most of his singing partners on the chorus. The acoustic guitar on this one is all D’Virgilio with the ringing out of sensitive chords in the introduction, while Morse provides subtle but supportive electric piano. Further on D’Virgilio delivers the most rocking song on the album in “Mama”, kind of like Morse’s “Second Hand Sons” did on the first album. However on “Mama” they decide to unleash Morse’s talk box guitar while D’Virgilio plays bass and gets some electric guitar in of his own. He follows up with the playful “I’m Not Afraid”, D’Virgilio covering most of the instrumentation this time including featured ukulele.

Not to be forgotten, Jennings offers three excellent songs of his own. The catchy “Tiny Little Fires” stands out through the unexpected xylophone appearance, which initially inspired the song while Jennings was playing with his son. As with several of the other songs, Morse’s B3 organ plays an important role in supporting whole vibe and joy of the tune. “Weighs Me Down” revolves around a chord similar to his “Julia” from the previous album. This is a hypnotizing piece, augmented by additional vocals from their families, Yulia Jennings and Sophia D’Virgilio, a nice touch. Finally, “Walking On Water”’s opening chord progression suggests Jennings might start singing, “There must some kind of way out of here, said the Joker to the Thief.” Instead, it turns into a high spirited outing with an excellent chorus of its own. Jennings plays bass, keys and electric guitar on all of his three contributions, giving a different feel from the other two guys.

There’s two additional songs by Morse on this collection but honestly these feel like they’d be more appropriate on one of his solo folk albums, lacking the group identity of most of the rest of the album. Perhaps one of them would have been okay, but both together take the momentum of the album down a good chunk. Ironically, both songs are also offered as bonus tracks with “alternate versions”, and these actually are slight improvements over the regular album version: the alternate “Right Where You Should Be” loses the too-twangy pedal steel guitar on the original and lets Jennings take the lead vocal instead of Morse which makes it feel more like a group effort; and “The Weary One” drops Gideon Klein’s string accompaniment, which actually brings more immediacy to Morse’s vocals and the supporting harmonies.

D’Virgilio has been beating the drum to get this trio to do some live dates. Hopefully that will happen in 2024 and there’s no reason to believe this configuration won’t come up with additional gems in the next few years. While “Sophomore” doesn’t blaze any new trails from its predecessor, the material is consistently strong as they celebrate the trails laid by their musical forefathers. Once again, it’s a welcome detour from their prog day jobs.

Released By: Inside Out Music
Release Date: November 3rd, 2023
Genre:  Folk / Pop Rock

“Sophomore” track-listing:

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
6. Mama
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) – CD Bonus Track
12. The Weary One (Alternative Version) – CD Bonus Track

Musicians:

  • Nick D’Virgilio / Vocals, drums, percussion, acoustic guitar, ukelele, electric guitar, bass
  • Neal Morse / Vocals, acoustic guitar, slide guitar, B3 organ, bass, electric piano, talk box
  • Ross Jennings / Vocals, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, bass, keyboards, xylophone, ebow
  • Gideon Klein / Pedal steel on 4, strings on 5
  • Yulia Jennings / Additional vocals on 8
  • Sophia D’Virgilio / Additional vocals on 8

Pre-order Sophomore” HERE.

8.5 Excellent

The new folk trio of Nick D’Virgilio, Neal Morse and Ross Jennings returns for their second outing, largely following the structure of their debut release. Dropping their prog tendencies and instead picking up acoustic guitars, the guys focus on their songwriting skills and harmony vocals, offering one sweet song after another. Campfire not included

  • Songwriting 8
  • Musicianship 9.5
  • Originality 7
  • Production 9.5
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