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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2001/10/18
by John Zinkand

A Swat at Oysterhead

Now that Phish has stopped playing live for the time being and are on a self imposed indefinite hiatus, it is nice to see the members out playing on side projects and sitting in with other bands. Page has done some recording of his own music and will soon play as a guest with Tenacious D. Mike has played with Phil Lesh, Max Creek, and is scheduled to play with Govt Mule in addition to working on the film about the life of former Govt Mule bassist, Allen Woody.
Jon Fishman has played with his band Pork Tornado and has played with some old friends around Burlington. He is currently touring and playing drums with the Jazz Mandolin Project, and I was lucky enough to see their live show a few days ago. They really are a phenomenal band, but I couldnt help thinking that there were many more people in attendance at this show than the last time JMP came through town, most likely due to the presence of Fishman. Hopefully people will appreciate the power of the other players in this band and see them the next time they come through even if Fishman is not in the line-up at the time, and they wont be able to see what Ive dubbed the Fishmandolin Project.
Which brings us to Trey. Everyone loves Trey. Since Trey is so popular and is, by far, the highest profile member of Phish, almost everyone knows what he has been up to since the last Phish show in California. There have been jam sessions at The Barn near his Vermont home, he has written and performed pieces with the Vermont Youth Orchestra, and hes played tours with a couple different versions of his Trey Anastasio Band. Trey has been as busy as ever writing lots of new songs for his different ensembles to play. Then theres Oysterhead.
Oysterhead is the name of the band which consists of former Police drummer Stewart Copeland, Primus bassist Les Claypool (more recently known for his playing with the Fearless Frog Brigade), and Trey on guitar. The band started out as a whim when they were hurriedly rushed together to play a show in New Orleans around the time of Jazzfest last year. While the show was a bit rough around the edges and had a few too many songs about Oysterhead, there was definitely a glimmer of something special in the trios performance. The steady drumming of Copeland backed by the thick and meaty bass lines of Claypool and the guitar work of Trey showed promise. Not to mention the fact that with the zany and outgoing personalities of Les and Trey on the same stage, theres a possibility that almost anything could happen. Thats why I was so very pleased to hear about Oysterheads album, The Grand Pecking Order, and its subsequent supporting tour. I bought and have enjoyed listening to the album. When I saw a link to a review on Andy Gadiels Phish Page, I was eager to see what others thought of this unique sounding CD. I was shocked to read such an outright bashing of the album and wondered how the Michigan Daily could allow such strongly biased negativity to be printed as part of their paper.
As jam music fans, many of us have read bad reviews of what we consider to be great albums or concerts, but we usually have no forum to rebut these views with which we disagree so heartily. Well, I do have a forum to discuss such things and will use it right now to let it be known that Keith N. Dunsberrys review of the Oysterhead album at the Michigan Daily is a terrible review that has nothing intelligent to say and serves only as a way for him to spout his hatred toward the hippie/jam music scene. When writing the first few lines of what is supposed to be a review of an album, Mr. Dunsberry chooses to allude to a cold day last year when Phish stopped playing and the fact that Jerry was still dead. Since Oysterhead is neither Phish nor the Grateful Dead, I was dumbfounded as to why he even goes into any dialogue about them at all. He seems to be quite pleased by the fact that there arent any large touring hippie bands right now by condemning VWs and parking lot made grilled cheese sandwiches. He then continues by stating that former Dead-heads and Phish-heads are bumming because they cant make money on Clapton tour.
This is an album review? After starting his piece in such an obviously biased way that shows he only hates anything and everything the jam scene produces, there is little hope that there will be any real review of the actual music on the album in question. The second paragraph would hopefully get to the business of reviewing the album, right? Wrong. Mr. Dunsberry uses this space to further bash the jam scene with which he so obviously has some deeply seeded problem. In his view, jambands are preachers to an already converted choir of jam fans. He feels folks like Trey and Copeland are washed-up.
Through the first two paragraphs, we learn a lot about the writer. We learn that he has many preconceived notions about the jam scene and that he thinks it can easily be dismissed as a cult group of people who act as lemmings while they pursue crappy music. We can also assume that he has little to no experience with improvisational music as an art form, since he never makes any reference to any improvisational bands that he does think are good. Finally, calling someone as prolific as Trey washed-up reveals a naivethat almost completely discounts his opinions. How can someone that has changed his career path to involve many more varied forms of artistic expression be considered washed-up? I guess easily if one judges things only by their commercial success or based on pop cultures prohibitive scale. No, this album wont produce any billboard hits, but that is not the goal. In a vision such as Mr. Dunsberrys that has such a finite scope, this will never be understood, apparently.
In the third paragraph of the review, we finally get to the music on the album. Amazing! In the opinion of the writer, the album never coalesces. Unfortunately, he doesnt give any real example of why he believes this. Instead, he goes on to make some ridiculous statement that playing an album by Phish, Primus, and any instructional drumming album (thus inexplicably busting on the very good drumming of Copeland) on three different players at the same time would produce the same effect as hearing the album itself. What a cop out. Obviously the guy must not like to do his homework. There is nothing close to any early Phish tunes on the album and, in general, the album is not nearly as heavy sounding as any Primus album. Instead, you can hear the different styles of the players compromise with one another to create a unique sound. Of course there will be hints of Phish and Primus in the singing and playing styles of Trey and Les, but that is to be expected. If it somehow sounded like Rush and Pink Floyd, I would be truly amazed. The point is, however, that through compromising bits of their respective styles, the sound does, in fact, coalesce very nicely.
Next the writer moves on to some more Trey bashing when describing Treys guitar playing. Why is that when Clapton solos, it is always considered a solo but when Jerry or Treys playing is described, we invariably hear a description that involves aimless noodling? In fact, there is almost no real stretching out or instrumental improvisational explorations (commonly known as noodling by the short attention span plagued pop music fan) on the album at all. There are some nice grooves with some flashy solo work by Trey that definitely lay the foundation for extended jams in the live setting, however. At least the writer does admit that the trio is technically remarkable. This is evident in all three members playing, but Claypool, in particular, shines with his great funky slapping and lightning fast runs.
Mr. Dunsberry sums up his review by making fun of the lyrics. He says that one needs to be on acid to appreciate them and that they are either horrendously obvious or surrealistically hideous. We dont know what the writer basses his opinions on, again, because he just bashes unconstructively without giving examples of what he considers to be good lyrics. I have read through the lyrics and have found none of them to be very obvious with the exception of The Armys on Ecstasy, which seems to make fun of societys warped view of drug use. Many lyrics on the album are surreal for the purpose of being surreal, but I feel that some of the lyrics have hidden meanings and philosophical gems within them that can be interpreted in personal ways by the listener. To dismiss all the lyrics as hideous is to show a lack of effort on the part of the writer in trying to engage himself very deeply in any of their true meanings.
The writer ends his review with one last sentence: This album is so boring it should come with drugs. Im going to end my review with one last sentence, too: Keith N. Dunsberrys review of Oysterheads album, The Grand Pecking Order, is so incredibly biased and bad that anyone who believes it would have to be on major drugs!

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