DMJ are Nick D’Virgilio, Neal Morse and Ross Jennings who, between them, play in or have played in Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, Big Big Train, NMB and Haken and, given their combined prog pedigree, if you were expecting to hear a synthesis of Spock’s Beard and Haken, you’re outa luck – as Sophomore is nothing like these bands. Instead, what you get is three guys taking time out from their day jobs to do something very different, especially so in the case of Ross Jennings, whose voice is heard in a way Haken fans might not know. Who knew Jennings could harmonise like this ?
DMJ initially came together in 2021 when Morse, having written some songs he felt would be enhanced by some strong vocal harmonising (’I love three part harmonies like CSN and Yes’), recruited old friend D’Virgilio and also Ross Jennings. All three brought something to the mix, found their voices gelled nicely and the result was Troika, an album recorded virtually, given the presence of ‘you know what’, which became one of the surprise packages of 2021 as few had expected an album of sensitive singer/songwriter acoustic guitars alongside some glorious vocal harmonies. Happily in 2023, with Sophomore, the three musicians were able to sing together in the same room and bounce ideas off one another.
The music on this new album is a little edgier and a bit heavier, given the occasional use of keys, electric guitars and drums, but it also shows the three musicians working together most effectively. Hard To Be Easy opens up, and it’s CSN meets Poco, with a pure CSN middle eight, suggesting DMJ are continuing where they left off on their first album, albeit being a little more adventurous with the use of instruments.
The country-tinged Right Where You Should Be is also heavily CSN influenced with a smattering of steel guitar, tasteful guitar work from Jennings and is a gorgeous piece. The quality of the harmonies on Sophomore are sheer delight right the way through, exemplified on tracks such as The Weary One and Weighs Me Down, a story about lost love, where the three voices blend together beautifully. DMJ are at their best when it’s just the three guys singing together with minimal backing. Which isn’t the case with Mama (not the Genesis song!) which is riff based and rocks slightly harder than other tracks, and also Tiny Little Fires with its occasional synths and inspired by Jennings’ playing around on his sons xylophone – both songs suggesting DMJ didn’t quite leave all their prog leanings behind them when recording this album – while I’m Not Afraid wouldn’t look out of place on an album by the Neal Morse Band. The superb Anyway The Wind Blows (‘..is where I’ll be found’) is possibly the track of the album for this reviewer, and closes what is a more than worthy follow-up to Troika, though some editions of this album will feature two bonus tracks, which are alternate versions of Right Where You Should Be and The Weary One.
Overall, this isn’t heavyweight music, it’s just a collection of rich vocal harmony pieces with some catchy melodies and well-crafted songs from three guys who really have learnt their craft well and are very good at it. One interesting thought… if they do decide to tour, as has been hinted at, will it be just as a three piece or will they take a couple of accompanying low key backing musicians with them? It’d be good to find out.