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Phil Yates | Tumble Stairs

Album review by John Powell

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Vermont-based alt. rock/country-tinged Phil Yates spends his days as a math professor. Tumble Stairs, however, isn’t full of complex musical equations, but is rather straight-up singer/songwriting. Both the instrumentation and lyricism are hit and miss, but on this seven-track album, Phil definitely grows on you.

“Good Morning to You” is an alt. country jig. The drums bang away and the guitar runs minor and keeps moving along chords. “A couple more drinks/you say that you'll be in trouble,” Phil sings. “Try to deny that we have a spark.” Phil, above all, has heightened sense of wit, but it’s super subtle. Here, you can barely tell that Phil is singing this song from in his head. It’s not a love song so much as a surprised I got this far, song.

With even more wit, on “Barely There But Blowing” (please tell me you get the double entendre in the title), Phil sings, over slow 4/4 guitar strumming with quiet shaker in the left speaker, “Is it me/or my chances/that get blown?” Because the song is a country ballad, the lyrics come across even more heartfelt, but really Phil’s written a joke and performed it well.

Phil as a joker continues on the sci fi thriller “Ninjas vs. Zombies (Let’s Keep Our Heads)”, a rocker that was actually in a soundtrack of a film with the same name. “We’re dealing with death,” he sings. “It doesn’t matter if the sides are twenty or six.” The chorus is major fun. “Let’s use our brains/together I have the verse and you have the chorus.” Then he talks about being a ninja and his guerilla war tactics. Nothing serious here.

The weakest link almost breaks the chain. “The Gift of Love” is slow, attempting to be Flamenco-esque and minor-key macabre, but the lyrics are contrived, as opposed to fun or poetic. “You keep saying your love is such a gift/you’re being oh, so thrift.” While the others are subtly witty, here I can’t tell if Phil is trying to actually be serious, or if his honesty is just not working.

Thankfully, it’s followed by “California Song”, another rock with heavy drums and is an ode to the west coast (where the album was recorded, mixed, and mastered). “My wallet gets lighter in L.A.,” he jokes. “I’m just complainin’/it’s nothing you’ve done wrong.”

Tumble Stairs is nothing cosmic, but it’s fun, and light-hearted, and Phil is definitely getting his footing. He’s driven by seeing if he can make sharp and quick tunes, never focusing too much on hooks or instrumental ingenuity. Try him out and see if he’s good for the rotation.

Bottom line: A mix of heartfelt no-nos and fun-loving pluses.



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