Discover more from Michael's Record Collection
Nick D'Virgilio on New D'Virgilio, Morse & Jennings Album
Appropriately titled "Sophomore" sees the return of DMJ to the sweet, three-part harmonizing they debuted on 2022's "Troika."
Thank you for spending part of your day with Michael’s Record Collection. I didn’t set out to collect interviews by the original lineup of Spock’s Beard over the last year or so, but that has now almost happened. Since speaking with keyboard wizard Ryo Okumoto last year, I’ve managed to speak with singer and multi-instrumentalist Neal Morse, bassist Dave Meros, and now drummer Nick D’Virgilio. And none of those interviews were specifically set up to talk about Spock’s Beard! The only one missing from the original lineup is guitarist Alan Morse, but that’ll give me an interview to shoot for in the future.
I caught up with D’Virgilio recently to talk about the upcoming release of Sophomore, the second album by D’Virgilio, Morse & Jennings, a trio based on three-part harmonies. The group was conceived by Neal Morse over a shared love of 1970s bands such as Crosby, Stills & Nash. DMJ debuted last year with Troika, and is back with a new offering of 10 songs (plus two bonus tracks). Sophomore picks up where Troika left off.
Let’s get to that story.
Neal Morse is a musical chameleon as a songwriter. He has written 1980s-style pop, bombastic progressive rock epics rooted in the 1970s, music suitable for film soundtracks and Broadway musicals, James Taylor-esque singer-songwriter numbers, gospel, country, and more. One of Morse’s biggest musical influences was the Beatles, and it was not uncommon for him to stay up all night singing Beatles songs with his bandmates after a gig when he was with Spock’s Beard.
Morse is an incredibly prolific writer, turning out multiple new albums every year, and delighting his most rabid fans with new releases every couple of months through his Neal Morse Inner Circle — a fan club of sorts that helps fund his recording efforts while rewarding fans with exclusive demos, live recordings, improvisational songs, original music, and even videos. He seemingly never stands still. In addition to putting out solo music these days, he’s a member of The Neal Morse Band, Flying Colors, Transatlantic, and his newest endeavor, D’Virgilio, Morse & Jennings.
DMJ is made up of — in addition to Morse — Big Big Train drummer Nick D’Virgilio, formerly Spock’s Beard’s drummer and vocalist, and vocalist Ross Jennings from English progressive metal band Haken. Morse asked D’Virgilio if he was interested in doing some melodic music based on three-part harmonies. D’Virgilio was a logical choice, as the two had harmonized countless times on albums, on stage with Spock’s Beard, and so many of those nights on the tour bus. The two then embarked on finding a third voice to go with theirs. They ended up with Jennings, a guy known more for belting out vocals for Haken’s heavy brand of prog.
“Neal had the idea to start with. He wanted to do a sort of Crosby, Stills & Nash, sort of singer-songwriter-y sort of thing,” D’Virgilio said. “Me and him and Al Morse, his brother, like back in the early days, on tour buses after gigs, we would stay up all night long singing Beatles and CSN tunes and stuff and do the three-part harmony. So I've been doing that together for a while (with him).
“And he had a bunch of tunes. He goes, ‘I'm thinking about this, and would you be into it, and maybe we could find a third person. Who do you think that should be?’ So, we threw out a lot of names at the beginning, and then Ross’ name came up. I think Neal thew it out first. I forget exactly how his name came up, but he did, and then we reached out to Ross. And that was just sort of the the genesis of it. That's kind of how it all started.”
Each of the three members of DMJ brings songs to the group, and the other two record their musical ideas on bass, keyboards, guitars, etc. — whatever the song inspires them to do. The veto power about what parts ultimately end up in the song generally goes to whoever wrote it.
The band debuted in 2022 with Troika, which made my honorable mentions list as one of the top albums of the year. Given the names involved, it seemed to me that DMJ would be a fun, bombastic, proggy endeavor. Instead, the songs were much more based on acoustic guitar with fantastic three-part harmonies that soared for days. I knew what Morse and D’Virgilio sounded like together, but with Jennings in the fold, something magical happened. Troika was a beautiful debut, especially the single “Julia,” which caught my ear immediately.
The band didn’t stop long to catch its breath. The trio’s second album, Sophomore, progresses nicely from the debut record, paying tribute to a variety of influences without straying too close to any one of them. Some of it is reminiscent of Crosby, Stills & Nash, but there are country-influenced songs, poppier numbers, mini-progressive tracks, and various 1970s rock sounds. But the heart of everything is the trio’s amazing harmony vocals, layered to create their own unique sound.
“I had honestly never heard Ross in this setting, this kind of style of music,” D’Virgilio said. “I've known him from Haken for a long time, of course. They're awesome. But I didn't know Ross had this sort of thing in him, and he's fantastic. It just ended up being a great mesh of styles and vibes and people, and it's just worked out.
“Neal can write eight million records a year. He's got so much music in his head all the time. So, it could easily be all of Neal's songs, of course. But then that would have been basically a Neal solo record. That's not what this was about. This is about trying to come up with something where we all sort of threw our stuff in the hat to see how it meshed.”
The album kicks off with the poppy “Hard to Be Easy,” featuring acoustic guitar by Morse and the three musicians’ wonderful harmony vocals in one neat, poppy, upbeat package. After the first verse, the sparse arrangement fills in as more instruments are added to the guitar, bass, and shaker. Keyboards, a thicker bass line, and drums fill out what turns into a cool and catchy little pop song with heavy CS&Y vibes. It’s hard to say anyone sings “lead” on this one as the three voices are blended well throughout. At times Ross seems to rise above the others and sometimes it’s Neal. But wait, now it’s Nick! There’s great balance on the harmony vocal.
Nick takes the lead vocal on “Linger at the Edge of My Memory,” a slower paced song that again begins with acoustic guitar as the Laurel Canyon vibes continue.
“Tiny Little Fires” is the album’s second single, and it starts out with what sounds like a toy xylophone playing a poppy, infectious melody. Jennings takes the lead vocal and a more complex drum and bass rhythm than you’d expect in a poppy song, but it’s catchy as hell and it’ll have you humming it hours later.
“Ross originally came up with a thing on a little toy xylophone,” said D’Virgilio. “And for the recording, I had a glockenspiel at home, and I laid that down, but he also had something in his place in England. So, I forget how it got all mixed in there. But it's probably a little bit of glockenspiel mixed with a xylophone, and maybe even a keyboard sound, too — that kind of thing.”
The trio goes country for “Right Where You Should Be,” complete with what sounds like slide guitar, and although it’s uncommon for me to find things to my liking in that genre, this song absolutely works for me. The song, sung by Morse, has a positive message and is a great singalong number.
Although I don’t love some of the lyrical choices in “The Weary One,” I can’t help but sing along with the chorus. It’s got a sparse arrangement with acoustic guitar and what sounds like cello.
The album takes an abrupt left turn on “Mama,” which is easily the crunchiest, rockiest song on the album. After five songs with strong Laurel Canyon vibes from the Byrds to Crosby, Stills & Nash to James Taylor, “Mama” kicks into gear immediately with electric guitar and talk box. The three vocalists all take turns on the lead and it’s a fun jam. D’Virgilio wrote it as a show of appreciation for mothers and the band plays it with gusto. You can practically hear the smiles spreading on their faces as they perform it.
D’Virgilio said the album needed a rocker.
“Like on Troika, there’s that song ‘Second Hand Sons,’ which is sort of the rocker of that record,” he said. “Neal felt we needed something with a little bit of grit on that record and I wanted to have something on this record too, and I wrote that thing. It’s a tribute to mothers. I’m a mama’s boy at heart and it’s just calling out how moms are the shit. I made a demo that was not far off what the finished product was, but then Neal put the talk box on it and it just kind of grew organically, and then once those guys sang those background parts, it was like, man this is totally cool! It really works. And I think it just shows the creativity of the three of us and how we can take things in a few different directions.”
Speaking of fun, D’Virgilio certainly is having some on “I’m Not Afraid.” Once again, the message is upbeat and the song is light and bouncy with a frenetic chorus. Nick even laughs during this playfully positive song.
“It's just fun, man. It's just fun,” D’Virgilio said of the trio’s purpose. “And this band really has no rules. We're doing this for fun, just trying to make some great music and entertain the folks and have some cool things to listen to for you people out there.”
From the happy, fun songs, the album transitions to a bit more darkness with “Weighs Me Down.” Built on a repeating acoustic guitar riff and subtle, atmospheric keys, with more of the trio’s harmony vocals, it’s a beautiful song.
“Walking on Water” is my early favorite on the record. It’s a veritable melting pot of 1970s sounds, spiced with dashes of the Doobie Brothers, America, Seals & Crofts, and Yes, with a tiny splash of guitar that sounds as if it walked out of “Sparks” by The Who.
“I'm influenced by all those bands you just said,” D’Virgilio responded when I listed the flavors I heard in the song. “I love all that kind of stuff. I'm sort of a child of that era. And those kinds of things are just sort of in my blood from listening to all those songs and the millions of cover gigs I've done over the years.
“That's a Ross tune. So it's got his sort of stamp. He's a real creative writer, that guy, and I didn't realize until I even started this band that Ross loves country music and pop music and stuff, even though he's in this hardcore sort of prog metal band (Haken). But he's just a great musician.”
The album closes with the first single from the record, “Anywhere the Wind Blows,” which is a half-and-half split between the poppier side of classic Spock’s Beard and the usual Laurel Canyon-type stuff throughout DMJ’s first couple of albums. It’s a good song, although I’d probably have opted to release “Hard to Be Easy” as the first pre-release track as being a bit more immediate, which might be why it’s the album’s first track.
The album includes a couple of bonus tracks — a version of “Right Where You Should Be” with Ross taking the lead vocal and a second version of “The Weary One” with some subtle differences from the proper album version. I’m not sure the latter needed to be added (even the running time is exactly the same), but it’s there if you want it.
Sophomore is a standout album and there’s something on it for just about every type of popular music fan aside from hip-hop or techno. Anyone into soaring harmonies and acoustic guitar should love the majority of this album, but it goes beyond that and it’s a great listen and a worthy addition to any pop/rock fan’s music collection.
Hard to Be Easy
Linger at the Edge of My Memory
Tiny Little Fires
Right Where You Should Be
The Weary One
I’m Not Afraid
Weighs Me Down
Walking on Water
Anywhere the Wind Blows
Right Where You Should Be (Alternate Version)
The Weary One (Alternate Version)
For my full interview with Nick D’Virgilio, check out the video below or download/stream Episode 124 of the Michael’s Record Collection podcast. In addition to discussing the new D’Virgilio, Morse & Jennings album, Nick talked about his musical background, how he met Neal and Alan Morse and joined Spock’s Beard, meeting Kevin Gilbert and the impact Kevin had on his career, leaving Spock’s Beard for a gig with Cirque du Soleil, how he wound up playing on a Genesis album, touring with Tears for Fears, joining Big Big Train, his Rewiring Genesis project, and more.
Thanks again for your time. Please consider sharing this issue of the newsletter with the music lovers in your life via the first button below, or sharing Michael’s Record Collection (in general) with the second. And be sure to check out the podcast version of MRC at your favorite podcast dispensary. I invite you to visit my website at michaelsrecordcollection.com and to take a look at the membership levels on my Patreon site at patreon.com/michaelsrecordcollection to find out how you can support independent writing and podcasting for as little as $2 per month (that’s only 50 cents per week!).