Let me start by stating which side of the fence I'm on with regards to Trey Anastasio: I love the man. As far as his new record Bar 17, in all honesty, I will probably only listen to it the few times it will take to write this review. This is not necessarily a matter of "I like it" or "I hate it." More than anything else, this album confuses me. Does Trey want to be a composer of modern symphonies or musical theater? (This could be an intriguing direction.) Or perhaps he'd like to be a pop darling? (Sorry, my love, this doesn't seem likely.) Does he want to sing lullabies or does he want to be the bad-ass guitar rocker for which we are all yearning? With Bar 17, I just don't know.
The song that leaves me the most conflicted is the title track, "Bar 17," the end of which has a stunning guitar solo backed by an emphatic performance from the band, especially Skeeto Valdez on drums. But it starts out focusing on Trey the singer in a high octave, which he gets in tune, but that's about it. There is nothing angelic about it, and it just feels... awkward. The next track comes back around with a rousing "Mud City," which showcases many of the guests Trey invited to record on the album, including Mike Gordon on bass, Sir Joe Russo on drums, Marco Benevento and John Medeski on keys, Cyro Baptista on percussion, and a horn section featuring Briggan Krauss and Steven Bernstein among others. Wow, what a lineup! Then – OUCH – Trey is takin' his bike out and riding it slowly, just how he likes, in the very questionable "Let Me Die."
Always looking for the glass that's half-full, I must continue by saying that Trey's musical ability is undeniable and his compositions are solid for the most part. He collected some of the best musicians of Trey Bands past and present to record on this album – acoustic, electric, brass, string, you name it - and the actual sound is pristine thanks to the fine people at Trout Recording right here in Brooklyn. I do have a favorite song on the album, the seductive "What's Done." Following the tension-climax-release formula, this will certainly be the one to hope for in the live show this tour. "Goodbye Head" is compelling in its vastness, but it feels out of place on this album. Trey walks that very thin tightrope between Zappa-esque and Broadway-esque; it's got potential for both greatness and disaster but doesn't quite fall to either side. There is lovely acoustic picking on "Empty House," reminiscent of "Inlaw Josie Wales," and gorgeous melodies pop up every once in a while as in "Shadow." The singing is very clearly the weakest aspect in this collection of songs, and it's difficult to ignore amidst today's musical landscape.
This album sort of reminds me of when Billy Joel started writing songs like "The River of Dreams." I wanted more than anything to get back to the guy who was kicking his piano bench, pounding the keys, and singing about the many faces of the stranger. But, as with good ol' Billy, I will always support Trey and his endeavors because I am a forever fan. I just hope that our musical tastes become aligned again as they once were. If you asked me, and I realize nobody did, I would like to see Trey continue to explore his horizons and deliver a deliberate, more focused record in the direction of conceptual composition for a large ensemble. Either that or rock the fucking roof off already.
JamBase | Brooklyn
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