After almost two decades of growth, art-minded sonic horticulturalist displays his educative topiary for those unafraid to dream big.
Planting seeds and see the wonder of bloom should be a labor of love, and this New Jerseyan musician can testify to that. With quite a few albums under his belt, Mike Ian would lay down the bits and pieces which landed on “The Learning Tree” over the course of many years, having started it in 2004, way before he stepped on a solo path and progressed beyond RANDORI and THE FM BAND, but was able to bring the endeavor to a close only in a post-pandemic period when ever-elusive lyrics eventually encountered the melodies. What emerged as a result is an amalgam of every creative horizon the multi-instrumentalist has traveled to, with each track an adventure in orchestral, acoustic and electric imagery he conjures up so easily.
From the thrillingly polyrhythmic groove of “A Pirate’s Dream” onwards, there’s a captivating story in every song – set against a cinematic backdrop whose string-drenched strum will drown the words only to wash their balladeering and take back to the surface and let sharp riffs slice Ian’s warm voices, either packed into choruses or wandering alone as in the flute-flaunting “Happily Ever After” that bares Michael’s emotional vulnerability, rippling over a stately piano and weaving a wondrous yarn of a tune until a soaring guitar solo is launched into stratosphere. Perhaps, the escapism of “Cast In Stone” has too much sparkling pop attached to its delicate psychedelia, which the raga-tinged “Hereafter” enhances in spatial terms, but the flight of “Next Stop Anywhere” is undercut by heaviness in its big-sky, folksy core – so apparent in “Saved” where a hefty throb augments the mood, and so brilliant in “Letter To Home” where the contrast between dramatic thunder and lucent harmonies couldn’t be more striking.
That’s why the hymnal “Something More Nothing Less” is also tremendously touching, locating its organ-and-harpsichord solemnity in the affairs-of-the-heart fantasy, and the epic “Shine On” finds its symphonic light in the darkest reaches of the listener’s soul. There might be not enough momentum in this album, yet as a vantage point for a panoramic view of an artist’s trip outside the obvious “The Learning Tree” is great.