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(Elektra 62849 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/17/2002)
The phenomenon of jam bands, rock groups known for their extended instrumental improvisations, has seen quite a revival of interest in recent years. The blight of music videos and their destructive effect on the attention span of a generation of music fans, pretty much killed off the mass-market appeal of groups that concentrated on their music rather than style or marketing, and who invited listeners in on a journey into spontaneous creativity in the tradition of jazz. But the group that is perhaps more responsible than any for the renaissance of jam bands is Phish, who arrived in the wake of a revival in popularity of the Grateful Dead. And after the death of Jerry Garcia, Phish inherited a fair number of the Dead's fans, who turned Phish concerts into the same kind of Sixties-style happenings as Dead performances. Even though Phish represent a much higher level of musicianship and creativity than the Dead ever had, many fans still attended Phish concerts as much for the atmosphere as the music.
One of the things that makes a jam band excel is the interaction among the musicians -- the whole is usually much greater than the sum of its parts. So it's interesting when a member of a jam band makes a solo album away from the rest of the group. That is what has happened with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and his new self-titled CD.
Known for their great musical interplay, interesting and often whimsical compositions, Phish decided to go on an indefinite hiatus in October of 2000. Anastasio's CD is the first from a Phish member since then, and it turns out to be both a fascinating and quite entertaining release. Anastasio works with an entirely different group of musicians, in fact a very large group -- he'll be touring with an eleven piece ensemble, and the album features a large horn and string section -- but it doesn't come off as a big production. Anastasio's sound is unmistakable, as is his clever writing style, which is very much in evidence throughout the CD. For the most part, Trey Anastasio the album sounds like the work of a jam band, albeit a large one, with a decidedly funky beat providing an undercurrent. But there are also some significant departures for Anastasio, including an instrumental orchestral piece. And with Phish's more recent studio albums having gotten to sound more produced, Anastasio's record is probably more in the spirit of Phish than the group itself.
Anastasio has assembled a fairly constant band for his album including bassist Tony Markellis, who has appeared on our Homegrown Music series with singer-songwriter Michael Jerling, and who plays a distinctive acoustic-electric instrument; plus drummer Russ Lawton and keyboard man Ray Paczkowski. Also prominent is vocalist and trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick. In the group of added musicians for the recording are respected jazz trumpet man Nicholas Peyton, and saxophonist Dana Cawley formerly of the band Morphine. Anastasio co-wrote most of the music on his album with bassist Markellis and drummer Lawton.
For the most part, Anastasio's CD will be fairly familiar musical territory for Phish fans, with the guitarist's recognizable sound on his instrument and vocals. His lyrics are often in the quirky, whimsically inscrutable tradition of his work with Phish. But the album gives Anastasio a chance to do some things he would not normally be able to do with Phish, including working with a good, funky horn section, soul-style backing singers, and also writing some orchestral arrangements. Anastasio's band and the added players are all first-rate. The result is for me the best studio recording to come from Phish or its members since their album Rift in 1993.
Anastasio calls himself a live musician first, and that aspect is evoked on the album. The compositions tend to be groove oriented, and there are plenty of opportunities for instrumental soloing. Further, some of the tracks were recorded essentially live on a first take after the guitarist and his band played a couple of gigs.
The album opens with a song called Alive Again, which features a bit of a Latin beat, which should be familiar to Phish fans. Less familiar will be the horn section, which adds a lot interest to the song. <<>>
Reminiscent of Memphis-style soul is Cayman Review, which features the larger horn section. It represents one of the departures from the Phish sound, but it works quite well, with a strong rhythmic groove. <<>>
According to Anastasio, Push On 'Til the Day was recorded in a first-take after the band had played a couple of live dates. The guitarist says that the energy level of this particular performance has not been equalled. It's definitely one of the album's highlights, and its extended length allows this to turn into a memorable large jam band affair. <<>>
As a contrast to that is A Flock of Words a laid-back ballad on which the string section makes its appearance. Though the performance is quite respectable, this is not the kind of song at which Anastasio excels. <<>>
Another interesting track that may surprise Phish fans is Drifting, a well-written song that might have come from a singer-songwriter-folkie. <<>>
Also somewhat out of character for Anastasio is the decidedly psychedelic sound of Mr. Completely, which with its added orchestral parts conjures up the flavor of some of the Beatles' late period music, and other British bands who followed in their footsteps. <<>>
There are two instrumental pieces on the CD, and by far the more surprising one is called At the Gazebo, which was written for the orchestra and definitely has a classical element. For me, it's one of the album's best tracks, despite its being an almost diametric opposite to a jam band, with its detailed orchestral score. <<>>
But the CD is not without its magnum opus jam, the eleven minute long Last Tube, which unlike a Phish tune, features a large ensemble with some interesting orchestral instrumentation providing the musical textures while the band cooks over the song's strong groove. <<>>
Trey Anastasio, the album by the guitarist and vocalist of the same name is in some ways a pleasant surprise, and in others just the sort of thing you would expect from someone like the founding member of Phish. There are some great jams and grooves, and the whimsical non-sequitur laced lyrics that are familiar to the group's many fans. But Anastasio tries some interesting new things and generally succeeds. The large, horn-laden group is quite agile, and can help to give a soul and R&B flavor to much of the album, especially with its often funky undercurrent. But the CD gives Anastasio a chance to do things he would not be able to do with Phish, including creating the interesting orchestral arrangements, working with the soulful female backing vocalists, and his ventures into slower ballads. For me, the result is the best studio Phish project in the better part of a decade. The combination of eclecticism, first-rate musicianship, and a "please don't take us too seriously" attitude combine to make this an album that's both interesting and fun. Even those who might not be Phish fans may find a good deal to enjoy on the CD.
For sound quality, we'll give the album a "B," mainly for the usual overly compressed sound that is standard on major label releases. Some of the large ensemble material also falls a bit short in terms of clarity. But overall, it a decent-sounding rock album.
All too often in music, a member of a prominent band will make a solo album, and the result will be a disappointment as it becomes apparent that the group's members need each other. This is not Trey Anastasio's first solo album -- he made a largely experimental work a while ago. This time on his eponymous release, he proves his musical mettle as he seeks out and adeptly fits in with other musical directions without losing that quality that has made his contributions to Phish so important.
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