Los Angeles-based guitar virtuoso Paul Gilbert released his 13th and latest studio album, Stone Pushing Uphill Man, on August 5th, 2014. The 11-track disc features instrumental adaptations of eight famous “oldies” tunes, along with three of Gilbert’s original songs. The result is something like being at the mercy of his iPod on ‘shuffle’: listeners end up with a jaunty, motley smorgasbord of songs, ranging from the hard rock leanings of Aerosmith‘s “Back In The Saddle” to the ‘godfather of soul’ James Brown‘s funky “I Got The Feelin'” to the wispy new-age balladry of k.d. lang‘s “Wash Me Clean”. As is normal and expected for Gilbert, who’s output is consistently top quality, the disc is crisp, clean, and articulate. The mix, by Jay Ruston, offers plenty of space for each instrument, with no overpowering parts. Working with co-producer Philip Naslund and drummers Kenny Aronoff and Mike Portnoy, continuing to defy genre boundaries and ‘labels’, Gilbert again attempts to show us that all notes are good notes. And there are a lot of good notes offered on this 42 minute platter.
- Stone Pushing Uphill Man opens with Loverboy‘s “Working For The Weekend”, instrumentalized. The song has been changed in that the vocals have been removed and replaced with a more timeless, and much faster, lead guitar melody line. Gilbert gets this to work, infusing the music with energy, removing none of the excitement of the original. He is aided by progressive-rock drummer extraordinaire Mike Portnoy in capturing the driving, upbeat backbone of the tune.
- Aerosmith’s “Back In The Saddle” continues the rock adventure, getting the covers treatment next. Remarkably, it’s Gilbert’s bass guitar (!) that jumps right through the mix – complex, accurate, kinetic, and wicked burly. The guitar is faithful to Steven Tyler‘s phrasing and inflections; listeners are treated to howling, screaming leads with no coddling or trace of softness.
- James Brown’s “I Got The Feelin'” is super funky: iconic, and characteristic. This tune will get you moving. There are two percussion parts – bongos (played by Gilbert), and acoustic drums. Great care has been exercised here to replicate not only the lyrics’ rhythm, but also their ebb, flow, and volume within the song: their dynamic. Gilbert’s guitar contributes as much speed as his bongos contribute texture: plenty.
- Elton John‘s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” follows, and is the most dynamically introduced, and melodic of the tunes so far. What’s quirky about this cover is the sort-of obvious ‘cut in’ solo, to extend the song. Reminiscent of Gilbert’s guitar clinics where lengthy solos are inserted into proper cover tunes, it’s fantastic, just a little jagged. Both the original and cover are timeless, nice, and mellow.
- “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road”, a raunchy Beatles classic, continues the Brit-pop hit string. Simple blues-based rock is the name of the game here, something Gilbert’s fans and especially guitar clinic attendees will have heard him play many times. The challenge here is thus to make it sound compelling, and he accomplishes this very quickly and masterfully. Accompanied again by Portnoy on drums, the song is both modernized and kept timeless.
- Two originals follow, “Shock Absorber” and “Purple Without All the Red”. “Shock Absorber” tailgates so closely that a listener who’s not watching the song titles switch might be fooled by the brevity of the Beatles tune, thinking it has a false ending. The spoken-word sample kicks off “Shock Absorber”, which seems to continue the album’s underlying blues-rock theme development. It has some very funky moments, and a nice bass line. Lots of quirky and fast parts pepper this fun song.
- Wandering, mellow, slower, and without drums, “Purple Without All the Red” is next. The song has a quasi-country, folksy, ‘western’ theme and texture. Thought of in the song-by-song context, this is one of the quietest tunes on disc, bringing a welcome contrast to the “loudness”.
- “Murder By Numbers”, originally by The Police, is a quirky song which has some bonafide dynamics, reproduced faithfully. Nearly jazzy, the odd time and accents highlight a very nicely played drum line. Like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, Gilbert’s version of “Murder By Numbers” has a strange finger-tapping guitar solo inserted to extend the song. The tapping solo adds contrast to the tune – not bad, just abrupt.
- Like Gilbert’s previous effort Vibrato, this disc lacks an obvious classical music cover. This disc’s covert classical is contained in the adaptation of Eric Carmen‘s 1976 sensational pop-rock hit “My Girl”. According to Gilbert, “Eric begins with a Rachmaninoff theme, and uses it for the bridge of the song, as well. I’ve got no problem with borrowing from the greats.” Gilbert’s composition is a fitting cover that captures the emotion and honors the spirit, and harmonies, of the original.
- In to ballads? The k.d lang cover, “Wash Me Clean” is for you. This adaptation captures some of the dynamic in the original’s vocal line and delivery, but where it really excels is that it removes all of the lyrics. Listeners are left with pure music: notes and passages to enjoy, sans vocal statements. Short and sweet, this sugary tune is complemented with nice acoustic guitar passages, and lots of ‘bends’.
- The album’s closing and title track, “Stone Pushing Uphill Man”, is another original, and the sole song with verse-chorus vocals (sung by Gilbert). The track’s acoustic guitar parts reflect to some of his earlier material (eg Gilbert Hotel). Nicely composed, the tender start song has a wonderful transition to blistering blues-based rock. Choruses feature a gospel-type female backing vocal, courtesy ArtistWorks vocal instructor Jeannie Deva.
A brave thing Gilbert has done is that he’s tackled readily recognizable, iconic, “hit” songs to adapt. He could have chosen far lesser-known songs and covered them with equal ease. A humorous pitfall of these choices is that if you play the disc around someone who’s familiar with the original versions, you’re likely to be met with a colorful “what are you listening to?!”. As a conversation starter, Stone Pushing Uphill Man excels. The structure of each tune covered is preserved, and the original songs mesh fantastically. Because of it’s reach and diversity, it also isn’t as divisive as say, a Racer X or Mr. Big disc would be: it brings music to everyone, not just a subset of extant ‘Paul Gilbert fans’.
Stone Pushing Uphill Man offers the same basic variety of songs as featured on previous recordings, (Burning Organ, Space Ship One, Silence Followed By A Deafening Roar, and the like) but in a more overt “all music is good music – do you get the message now?” way. It’s almost like listening to demo versions of songs without vocals – an exercise that will deepen your music appreciation. Adept, enjoyable, and accessible, these adaptations truly take listeners on a musical adventure. Gilbert emphasizes that it’s the process, not the product, that’s to be enjoyed in music’s creation. This disc received very little advance promotion, and treads in dangerous “covers album” waters — it might end up as a ‘deep cuts and B-sides’ collection to be discovered when fans mine his back catalog in a few years. As a potential hidden gem in the making, give Stone Pushing Uphill Man some time and several listens to “grow on you”. Will you die if you don’t listen to this record? No. Will your appreciation of music be broader if you do choose to partake? Perhaps. This sonic peregrination is far more varied and satisfying then the latest shred-fest; speed is not king, unless you’re a photon.
TL;DR version: Stone Pushing Uphill Man is like an amped-up Paul Gilbert guitar clinic — tunes are fun, melodic, accessible, and mellow to absolutely blistering. Top quality, very well worth the purchase.
Track Listing with run times:
Working For the Weekend — 3:43
Back in the Saddle — 4:42
I Got the Feelin’ — 2:09
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road — 4:54
Why Don’t We Do It In the Road — 1:44
Shock Absorber — 5:12
Purple Without All the Red — 2:02
Murder by Numbers — 4:36
My Girl — 4:39
Wash Me Clean — 3:20
Stone Pushing Uphill Man — 5:23
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