When Paul Gilbert announced that he would let his guitar sing on Stone Pushing Uphill Man, it was cause for legitimate excitement. The man who can reasonably claim to be the most adept rock guitarist on the planet was returning to the instrumental world to blow our collective minds. Few, however, would have predicted that Gilbert was being quite so literal, while his guitar doesn’t actually sing on his latest album (they haven’t invented an effects pedal that demented, yet), his Ibanez does take the place of the original vocals on classic Elton John, Beatles and K.D Lang tracks.
This concept isn’t entirely new, but it remains novel, having worked wonders for Jeff Beck and Brian May in the past. There is certainly plenty of room for intrigue and counterpoint as Gilbert’s Ibanez carries both the rhythm and melody, merging the two into one as he approaches solos. The risk is apparent, if Gilbert doesn’t do enough, if his guitar doesn’t truly sing or dramatically warp, he could be left with watered down covers that shed no new light and are fit for tedious lounge bars at best or hotel elevators at worst.
Thankfully, Gilbert is simply too good for the later, but he does on occasion disappoint. His cover of The Beatles’ White Album classic “Why Don’t We Just Do It In The Road” is wilfully underpowered as the guitarist sticks too rigidly to the original. This was the moment in 1968 when Paul McCartney was free to cut loose his pent up persona and show his wild side. For Gilbert it represents an opportunity to unleash hell, to ratchet up the distortion and bulldoze. His version is catchy, pleasant, polite and entirely passable, but ever so underwhelming.
Gilbert fares far better when he’s allowed to cut loose, stray or outright create as he does on his own composition “Shock Absorber”. Free to let his guitar strut and saunter, he carves mercilessly into the track for five straight minutes, creating a sense of dynamism while retaining the sly humour that informs his best work. Certain covers do allow Gilbert room to expand and, at times, his guitar exudes more soul than it does power or precision. His cover of the title track from Elton John’s high watermark LP Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a wonder. Elton’s hopeful tale of moving beyond expectation is transformed into the kind of intergalactic ode Gilbert does so well. Remarkably, the core melody is never lost, even with the addition of a fingertip shredding solo.
More often than not Gilbert’s guitar has more to say when the pace is slowed. “Purple Without All The Red” is a low-slung original; its old west saunter is delightful, carrying plenty of wistful dejection and charm. K.D. Lang’s “Wash Me Clean” is another welcome edition. Easily the most spacious track on the album, it represents the first real chance for Gilbert’s solitary notes and gorgeous tone to resonate, capturing some of the original’s underlying sorrow in the process. The most bizarre offering is undoubtedly “Murder By Numbers”; bearing only the slightest resemblance to the original in the verse, Gilbert’s version is knotty until the chorus unpicks this chronically clogged, but not unpleasant, spin on a Police staple.
Pushing Stone Uphill Man is, in many ways, a starkly conventional record – the kind of album a seasoned guitarist is expected to put out to bolster the coffers – and that makes it a strange sidestep for Gilbert. Following the Mr. Big reunion and the success of Vibrato with a straight-faced covers record, feels pedestrian. Gilbert takes too few risks in his reinterpretations to risk alienating his audience or upending the originals and, with a few notable exceptions; this has led to an extremely competent and pleasing record that won’t live long in the memory.
Pushing Stone Uphill Man is nice, but, truthfully, we don’t want nice from Paul Gilbert: we want wild, crazy, goofy, intergalactic guitar playing that rips the laws of time and space to shreds.
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