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Published: 2002/05/22
by Chris Bertolet

self-titled – Trey Anastasio

Elektra Records 62749-2

Trey Anastasio, bless his freckled kiester, has never played coy about
his influences. From the critic-proof pedigree of legends like Ravel
and Ellington and Hendrix to mall-boy fodder like Boston, he seems as
happy to sing their praises in print or on camera as he is to wring
their music from the neck of his Languedoc, drop by drop, re-imagined
and re-inflected in ways ineffably Trey.

In his prior life, which now sits in some cruel state of suspended
animation, Anastasio was the firing pin for Phish's shotgun spray
eclecticism. He catalyzed his band mates and they followed boldly,
presumably either too na, blunted, or blissed-out gaga in love with
music to know that Gershwin and Zeppelin were two great tastes best left
unacquainted (or so said Conventional Wisdom). Phish's aesthetic, and
Anastasio's, was deviant and simple: throw a party for music and invite
everybody except Conventional Wisdom, then pump up the volume and
let the kids gape and wiggle.

The result was a cosmic juggernaut, a blinding light in a dimming
rock & roll universe, something genuinely novel under the sun. As Phish
lumbered and pitched toward its peak, it gulped styles and idioms down
its maw with insatiable abandon and vomited them out in glorious tangles
of smoldering newness, with the brazen confidence of a mad
scientist vindicated by hard won success. At the crest of the wave,
Phish's mode of stage play became so effortless, intimate and open that
raw feeling often dripped like blood from slashes in the band's
collective skin. Seeing Phish at Hampton in 1997 (among many other
jaw-dropping performances that year) must have been like watching
Charlie Chaplin shed his first celluloid tear — funny and sad and
beautiful and unexpected and wonderful and cataclysmic and plain fucking
awesome.

Who can say – maybe not even the players themselves – what began the slow
Phish fade, roughly three years on stage and nearly two years off?
Maybe we can find clues in the occasional belch of brilliance like Big
Cypress, and maybe not. Maybe it's scary having God hurtle into your
heart and out your instrument, and maybe peaks are called peaks
for good reason, and maybe not. Maybe all will be clear when Phish
returns to the stage. And maybe not.

One thing is for damn sure: it is impossible to estimate anything those
musicians do otherwise without a nod to the yawning void that Phish left
in its wake. Yeah, nature abhors a vacuum. The question is, does it
love the Trey Anastasio Band?

If you believe Trey, and you should, this band draws inspiration from
fewer influences than did Phish. On the conceptual level, the project is a
deliberate menage of the tongue-and-groove compositional style of big
band Duke, the staccato horn attack of the JBs, and the African pulse
of King Sunny Ade and the Kutis. In truth, most Phish fans know fuck
all about any of those guys, but no matter. It looks good on paper, a
tasteful confection; all critic-proof pedigree. In concert, it's way
bootylicious, a hell of a way to spend a summer evening. But, presented
as a musical document, it has the halting, sanitized, academic feel of a
thesis from a student who feels unworthy of his forebears. Ye Phishies
who enter need not abandon all hope, but don't be foolish enough to hope
for abandon. Alas, it's in short supply.

Trey and his band run best in high gear. Lead track "Alive Again" – whose chorus sounds suspiciously like a poke at Phish's notoriously
critical fans – is an ambitious mosaic of Cubanismo, overlapping horns,
party whistles, doubled vocals, and a nifty little bridge that sounds
lifted from the "Streets of San Francisco" theme. "Push On 'Til The
Day" suggests Tito Puente on crank, or Steely Dan without the male
pattern cynicism; its sheer inertia is virally contagious, its brass
parts aptly big-n-brassy. "Money, Love and Change," a ripping,
all-too-short blast of woozy soul and fusion, manages to transcend some
busy studio trickery and make some righteous noise — and even a
point.

The deliciously serpentine "Last Tube" sprawls out nicely, tossing a
welcome bone to jam partisans. Not that the song lacks tight
construction; its spiraling eastern melodies weave dizzy patterns around
Afro beats with impeccable color and sense. But at the halfway mark,
minutes after the album's average track has ended, Trey trades phrases
with Jennifer Hartswick's muted trumpet, starting an unruly playground
kibbutz that builds patiently to a fever pitch. It's the album's
triumphant moment… and arguably its Phishiest.

A few up-tempo joints fall just short of the mark. The boogie blues
"Cayman Review" tells of a tequila bender gone loco and double entendres
about oral sex with some chick named Louise, and damned if there isn't
something a little sad about that. If Anastasio and his verbal yin Tom
Marshall hoisted the flag of youth with Phish's anthemic "Chalk Dust
Torture", here they hoist the flag of midlife crisis. It was dope
being young, can't I rage while I'm old?! Trey gets his Beatle on
with "Mr. Completely", a careening spill of psychedelia that birthed the
band's most inspired and reaching jams last summer. Here, it's fenced in,
with barely a whiff of bombast or risk.

The album only truly falters in its earnest moments. "Flock Of Words" is a
pained AOR ballad in the vein of "Waste", which is to say that it could
probably find a cozy home on a Sheryl Crow record, and "Drifting" is a
well-meant misfire, a cringe-inducing Hallmark card set to music. Far
be it from me to slag a great man's desire to write a silly love song,
but it's my job to tell you straight and so I will: Donny and Marie
would feel entirely comfortable performing this oozy treacle wherever
Donny and Marie still perform. "At The Gazebo" sounds like an obscure
Beethoven piece, but in the end it's a delightful little etude that
deserves its own spot on an album of delightful little etudes.

The roughly 75,000 credited contributors on this record all comport
themselves well, if modestly. Sometimes too modestly. Case in point:
Anastasio has called bassist Tony Markellis "The Yoda of Groove". I
suppose this is true if you imagine that Yoda spent thousands of years
doing little besides napping in a swamp, waiting for Jedi to drop out of
the fog. While I appreciate musical restraint as much as the next guy,
and while I grasp the importance of a rock solid bottom, it seems that
Markellis has yet to meet a note or series of notes that he doesn't love
enough to play over and over until I feel hypnotically compelled to buy
Dockers and a La-Z-Boy. He's a machine, and I'm not sure I
don't mean that in the most Huxleyan sense of the word.

But I digress.

By no means is Trey Anastasio an unpleasant listen. It's a
mature piece of work; it won't piss off your parents, and you could
crank it on a bus or in the park without fear of incarceration or
physical harm. It'll even move your caboose in fits and starts. But
will it make you want to sequester yourself in your den for hours on end
with Messrs. Graffix und Sennheiser, searching doggedly between the
notes for the bold, furthur sound of enlightenment? I doubt it. And I
have to wonder, is that too much to expect?

Trey Anastasio grows up. Ain't life a bitch.

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