I dare you not to crack a smile during the opening verse. There had been mention that Neal Morse’s new acoustic project with Haken’s Ross Jennings and long-time pal and former Spock’s Beard band-mate Nick D’Virgilio was going to have a Crosby Stills Nash flavor to it. So when the lead-off song “Everything I Am’’ starts off promisingly with acoustic guitar and hand percussion, the hope of a fulfilling payoff is high. And then there it is: “If I had a dollar for our moments in the sun…” with three voices blending perfectly together, as if “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” had been reborn 50 years later. For fans of this style of melodic folk music, a huge grin is the almost inevitable response upon hearing such sunny, uplifting harmonies. And to some degree, the project has already realized its potential within the course of one minute. The rest is just icing.
Context is everything. Fans hopeful of some full-tilt progressive rock super-group – a combination of Haken’s bite and Spock’s quirky epics – will need to readjust their expectations. A better reference point is Morse’s recent singer-songwriter albums: “Songs From November” and “Life + Times.” When he was looking at working on another acoustic album in between his full band efforts, Morse thought it would be more creatively fulfilling to invite in some collaborators. D’Virgilio was an easy pick, his impeccable tenor voice being well-utilized lately on his own solo album and work with Big Big Train. Jennings was more unexpected (it’s still surprising fellow Spock’s-man Ted Leonard didn’t get the nod) but ultimately was a spot-on choice. Ironically, Morse was unaware of Jennings’ own forthcoming solo album, his love for this kind of acoustic music, or even that he played guitar so well! All of those attributes show up meaningfully on the resulting “Troika”. In fact, the bass, guitar and keys are covered by all three of them as needed, making this an in-house band several times over without need for outside musicians.
There’s a certain amount of collaboration that runs throughout the album, swapping lead vocals or instrumentation regardless of the originating songwriter. Of the 11 main songs here, D’Virgilio and Jennings brought in 3 each, with Morse penning the other 5, including the aforementioned “Everything I Am”. Morse digs into the heart of this genre with two pieces in particular: “A Change Is Gonna Come” and “What You Leave Behind”, the former being an almost anthemic cry of our times, the latter imploring to discover what matters most in life. “Happiness is not a what but who, and love is the only goal.” Both songs are standouts, making the most of these talented voices in an intimate setting. As if to balance out the acoustic, he injects a little Stills/Young flair with the stomping “Second Hand Sons”, a bluesy rocker that also carries an early Styx vibe and sees Jennings taking the lead guitar spot.
The lead single of “Julia” is a mesmerizing story told by Jennings, one of the album’s longer songs where he also gets to use a guitar Ebow during an instrumental break. The closing progression is so uplifting that it’s hard to remember this is a song pleading for forgiveness. Later on, his “King For A Day” starts with chiming 12-string but then turns into a rollicking driving song with Jennings on lead guitar and Morse kicking it on organ. Meanwhile, D’Virgilio strikes gold with “My Guardian”, delivering great performances on bass and electric & acoustic guitar in addition to his usual impeccable drumming. It’s a truly triumphant song right through the closing chorus refrain. On D’Virgilio’s playful “If I Could”, Morse chimes in with a Windkey for a new texture, though reportedly his Brazilian cuica performance was left on the cutting room floor. Tony Levin is credited with bass on this song – the only piece with an additional musician – perhaps indicating this was originally taken from D’Virgilio’s “Invisible” sessions where Levin also contributed.
The only noteworthy criticism of the album is the lopsided nature of the track listing, with the first half being much more acoustic-based and the rockers coming towards the latter half, making for a confusing listening experience. Mixing it up more could have made for a better-rounded presentation of the range of the material. Aside from that minor point, “Troika” confidently succeeds in this setting and will hopefully pave the way for future collaborations. These veterans of the prog and rock scene have taken a meaningful and extremely enjoyable detour from their day jobs. D’Virgilio, Morse and Jennings have taken inspiration from the great vocal groups of the past and made it their own, having a blast along the way. May their joy rub off on their listeners and cause a smile on every face – in times like these, we surely need it.
Released by: Inside Out Music
Released on: February 25th, 2022
Genre: Folk/Prog/Pop Rock
- Nick D’Virgilio / Vocals, Drums, Percussion, Bass guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Tron Flute, Electric Guitar
- Neal Morse / Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Bass, Organ, Slide and Electric Guitar, Windkey, Electric Piano, Fretless Bass, Mandolin
- Ross Jennings / Vocals, 6 & 12-String Acoustic Guitar, Ebow, Lead Electric Guitar, Synth
- 1.Everything I Am (5:43)
- Julia (6:07)
- You Set My Soul On Fire (3:22)
- One Time Less (4:53)
- Another Trip Around The Sun (4:39)
- A Change Is Gonna Come (4:24)
- If I Could (4:02)
- King For A Day (5:47)
- Second Hand Sons (4:43)
- My Guardian (3:43)
- What You Leave Behind (4:16)
Complex times sometimes call for simpler responses. Acoustic guitars, hand percussion and three amazing voices seem to fit the bill. On “Troika”, D’Virgilio, Morse and Jennings let their voices run wild in joy as if they had been let out on recess from their day jobs. Accompanying themselves on all the necessary instruments, these three esteemed musicians offer uplifting and thoughtful songwriting that visits familiar ground while creating a new identity. Fresh, timeless music with which, unlike CSNY, you can sidestep the Spotify controversy and just enjoy on Morse’s Waterfall streaming app