Review – D’Virgilio, Morse & Jennings – Sophomore – by John Wenlock-Smith

‘Sophomore’, the second album from the triumvirate of Nick D’Virgilio, Neal Morse and Ross Jennings, comes roughly two years after their debut album ‘Troika’ and, once again, we see three distinctly different voices blend together harmoniously, in tandem but also in good spirits.

The debut album was conceived and compiled during the lockdowns and around the movement and activities of these three working musicians in 2021, with one of the most impressive elements being that the trio had not actually met each other in person, well Nick and Neal had in their Spock’s Beard days but Ross was just a name at that time, known but, as of yet, not known by the others. This has been rectified for this release, with the three together in the video for Anywhere The Wind Blows.

Well, for those who enjoyed ‘Troika’, you will love this gentle further chapter of the trio’s story. The twelve track release is full of gentle, mostly acoustically driven music with more than a passing nod to the likes of CSN&Y, Graham Nash, Gordon Lightfoot, America or even James Taylor. This is especially noticeable on the track The Weary One, again the video will show you their great teamwork and their fabulous harmonies of voice. This really is a very relaxed, chilled vibe to listen to, however, for me the album really came alive when heard on headphones and when I had the lyrics as, although the vocals are clear, I just find it helps.

The opening song, Hard To Be Easy really grows on you, there is a lot of musical versatility on display and the bass work is great, the bottom end being very solid and consistent with the music. The songs warrant multiple plays to really engage with them fully. This album is not as straightforward as the debut was but, even so, it sees a real progression in their sound and there are multiple little touches that make this really work. It is an intelligent and somewhat compelling album of songs, all of which are well crafted and well written by the three of them. Tiny Little Fires is a case in point, this may be mostly acoustic but it powers along tremendously with a great little riff and a good synth solo that lifts the song well, it also has great Hammond Organ support. Right Where You Should Be has strong country elements, including pedal steel guitar sweeps and licks that supplement the track. It is an introspective song but tells us that we are right where we should be all along, it is possibly one of the albums strongest songs. Although to be fair, The Weary One is also a very strong contender with a good sympathetic cello part playing. There is also a very elegant fiddle that adds to the great dynamics of the song, the harmonies are also really fine on this track, making it another standout.

Mama is a more electric track and far more rock oriented than its predecessors. It is an ode to strong and firm mothers who guide their offspring into a good life, children who make them proud and don’t bring shame. This has a neat electric guitar solo from and is an interesting and rather rocky track and excellent fun. I’m Not Afraid is about doing right every day, another dose of Neal’s faith popping out I suspect with its generally positive lyrics. There’s another great guitar element and lines in this one. Weighs Me Down is another country music style song that has more of the stylish pedal steel amongst its sound and is a bit more downbeat and reflective in tone, it rolls along well though! Walking On Water has an almost Doobie Brothers swing and feel to it and the great lyrics and Spanish guitar flourishes add to this impression. There’s a great chorus too in this song, this one really impresses. You can hear the Doobies influences clearly but it’s all incredibly well done, the fiery guitar part in the middle does little to deny that view! What it is is a really great song, the albums longest and, to these ears, the best of the bunch.

Anywhere The Wind Blows is the albums final official track, and, again, there is a strong soft country-rock sound to it. This is the song that was the album’s lead single and has a rather excellent video that you can find at the end of this review. The track has a good accapella part in the middle, it’s a terrific song with sumptuous backing that really allows the trio to sing their hearts out. On the CD, that’s almost it except for the two extra songs which are slightly different takes on Right Where You Should Be and The Weary One, which are both very good but add nothing extra to their earlier incarnations, although they are possibly a little different vocally. Either way, they merely reinforce just how confident and accomplished the trio are, I believe further adventures, and possibly some live shows, could be on the horizon, it will be interesting to see what unfolds in that direction

However in the interim, sit back, enjoy and appreciate the craft that the trio offer on ‘Sophomore’. I really like it a lot, it’s different to my usual fare but fantastic to listen to when you want something different.

Released 10th November, 2023.

Order the album here:

Sophomore (