Trey Anastasio saw his world getting smaller, and he knew he needed a break. Not from performing music, which has been his life since he was a little kid listening to 70s rock in New Jersey, but a break from the four-headed monster known as Phish. Since Phish has been on hiatus, each band member has kept himself busy with side projects, but Trey has been the most active.
After a year in which he toured with his "new" band in small theaters during the winter, Trey graduated to amphitheaters for the summer with an expanded lineup, jumped into a fall tour with Les Claypool and Stewart Copeland as the hard-rock trio Oysterhead, and wrote and conducted an orchestral arrangement. Oh yeah, and he recorded his first solo album, Trey Anastasio.
The album is a combination of songs that show us Trey’s idea of a guitar-slinging rock star. Parts Clapton, Santana and even Seger, but always with a little goofiness a la Zappa, Trey gives us a peak what’s going on inside his head, and as one might expect, there’s a lot to hear. The songs range from introspective symphonic pieces to island-hopping tropical hi-jinx, with a dash of memories retained after waking up from a two-day bender. It’s nothing too serious, except a little heartbreak.
Since the songs were performed last year on tour, it doesn’t sound like as big a departure from Phish as it might. Still, Trey does more with his voice then he ever has in Phish and Jennifer Hartswick provides great backing vocals, especially on “Flock of Words” and “Night Speaks to a Woman.” These two aspects differentiate it most from Phish’s albums, not to mention the presence of horns, something last seen on Phish’s Hoist.
In a Billboard interview for his new album, Trey said he was working on song lists for the album and trying to put together a cohesive piece. On Trey Anastasio he succeeds, and the result is an album that ebbs and flows at just the right times. Trey knew the songs were good – you can’t fool a live crowd with shitty songs – and while fans complained that Trey’s set-lists last summer were repetitive, they completely overlooked the fact that all the songs were new. In a show at Portland Meadows in 1999, Trey asked the crowd, “Do you wanna hear a new song?” The crowd responded with a roar, and Trey had his answer. “Fuck yeah, all new songs,” he said and launched into “Birds of a Feather.” Trey’s been dying to play new material for a while. Like any true artist, he’s not content serving as a human jukebox.
In the opening song, “Alive Again,” Trey tells us a message he heard: “Quietly you say to me, the time has come for you to be alive again.” The percussion and sublime horns alert the listener that something fresh is about to embrace their ears, and it leads perfectly into the goofy “Cayman Review.” This song jumpstarts with a B.B. King-type guitar riff and plunges into the head-bopping bass and horns groove that Trey's band settled into last tour. “Push on till The Day” is next, and its whirling horns and start and stop guitar noodling set the tempo of the album. Trey’s guitar soars at times, but he never overshadows the other players. The next song, “Night Speaks to a Woman,” also features backing vocals by Hartswick and complex guitar work by Anastasio, but the song doesn’t quite hook me.
The piano ballad that follows, “Flock of Words,” will have the cynics running for a beer during shows, but it’s beautiful and it will be fun to see Trey and Jennifer interact together on stage. The lyrics are vintage Anastasio: “A moment of silence, it now seems absurd, that I learned so much, from a pause in a word. A bird on a wing leads the others along, inside your flock of words, something went wrong.”
The next two songs, “Money, Love and Change" and “Drifting,” were showcased last year on tour. I like the studio version of “Money, Love and Change” better than last year’s live one, but I found myself playing my live versions of “Drifting” more than the studio version. It feels overproduced here.
“At the Gazebo” is a wonderful orchestral piece that is the follow up to “At the Barbecue.” It seems like a journey back into suburban New Jersey, perhaps a moment in youth that is half-forgotten. Its calmness is a perfect set-up to drop into the sonic madness of “Mr. Completely,” which could have been a college radio hit in the alt-feedback early 90s.
“Ray Dawn Balloon” is a variation of “Radon Balloon” off the Oysterhead record, which of course was an instrumental called “Waves” to which Trey added words last summer. Arranged as an instrumental on this album, it works. “Last Tube” is reminiscent of “Sand” and rocks live, but the psychedelic lyrics and horns don’t transfer that well to the studio. It wears the listener out, but if you can make it, the jazzy “Ether Sunday” will put you into a trance and is a perfect song to close the album.
Go see live music!