There and Back Again – Phil Lesh and Friends
Columbia Records 86624
I've never bought the logic that jambands can't make great studio albums.
There's no reason why the inventiveness of a truly interesting group of
musicians shouldn't be able to carry over into other modes of playing.
Certainly Phil Lesh has had a significant hand in some great discs – especially the Grateful Dead's monumentally experimental late '60s output – but, unfortunately, There and Back Again ain't one of 'em. It's a
shame, too. Some of the live material on the bonus disc uncovers a nearly
pristine quintet whose intraband communication borders on mystic.
There's a moment on that second disc, during "St. Stephen", where there is a
minuscule pause and a slightly stuttered beat. It sounds awkward. It is
during that moment, when playing live, that the band usually pauses for – or
at least reacts – to the line "been here so long he's got to calling it
home." It's what happens after a certain breed of Robert Hunter lyric — a
line that somehow speaks to the Grateful Dead audience, accidentally summing
up a bit of the trip, a bit of the journey, some kind of accumulated wisdom.
When Hunter penned the lyrics for "St. Stephen", he couldn't've known that
it would soak up the metaphors of the Dead scene like a sponge — the "one
man gathers what another man spills line" hitting hard with taping
enthusiasts, the "been here so long" thing as some abstract statement of the
scene/tour as home.
In Hunter's old lyrics – "Ramble On Rose," "Tennessee Jed," "Jack Straw,"
and countless others – he referenced a mythic America of trains, roses, and
wine, and it sounded like he was really referencing a place of his own, a
place of great character, a place that had infinite potential great beauty
or crushing darkness. Metaphors have an odd way of working, and Hunter's
lyrics took to the world in a strange, strange way — a way more fruitful
than most poets or lyricists can ever really dream of. People live by them – emblazon 'em on tee-shirts and bumper sticks – and generally appreciate them
in a highly personal way that is rare in art and literature.
When the band sings "speak it from a mountain, speak it from a plain / speak
it like the whistle on a northbound train" (from "Celebration"), Hunter is
no longer carefully placing objects in a cultural landscape (such as on the
meticulous catalog of curious similes from "Ramble On Rose"), but
referencing what that set of images has come to mean. Since Jerry Garcia's
death, Hunter's lyrics seem to have become more conscious of this fact and,
in places, seem to play the audience like an instrument. "Come on, come on,
let the good times roll / It means more now than you'll ever now," the band
sings (again, from "Celebration"). It's not so much that it feels cheap – I
have more faith in Hunter than that – so much as awkward. It's like all of
the songs have those pregnant pauses from the "St. Stephen" built into them.
It feels like the band is on safari in that world (as opposed to out
wandering freely in it) even in the songs not penned by Hunter. That's not
to say that the lyrics are inherently bad, they're just kinda obvious, like
a tour guide pointing out rhinos who, in turn, poke up their lumbering heads
and glance disinterestedly at the safari van. "On your left is s'more
thunderstorm imagery… on your right, some rivers and roses…"
("Celebration", "No More Do I", "Midnight Train", "The Real Thing"). I'm not
suggesting a vast shift in approach, I'm just unconvinced that this set of
lyrics really gets inside that world in a complete emotional way.
There don't seem to be many characters. And, where there are characters,
there don't seem to be solid scenes.
Still, "Night Of A Thousand Stars" has some pretty good lyrics: "Remember
the night of a thousand stars / When love swam naked in the reservoir / Writing
mad sonnets in the midnight park / Leaving tracks of tears for her watermark / Drums
on the jungle on the edge of night / Only you could see with your perfect sight". Now, I love
the first part of those lines. It's a clear scene, even a beautiful one, but
then the "jungle" image suddenly tosses me somewhere else entirely —
jungles don't go with reservoirs; at least, not like that: the chaotic
undergrowth next to a neatly maintained water supply.
The upside is that the band smokes. Unfortunately, on the album proper, they
only do so in fits and starts. The outro to "Midnight Train" shows the band
communicating with each other beautifully. Unfortunately – with the possible
exception of the middle section of "Leave Me Out Of This" – that creativity
doesn't carry over to the songs' arrangements or textures. The band's vocals
feel overwrought, and the tunes feel like bones to shrug off. The Grateful
Dead world has always produced anomalies and exceptions to rules, and here's
the latest one: I think that Phil Lesh and Friends might genuinely be a more
creative, more interesting, more thoroughly good band if they stuck
to playing the old material. And I feel like an asshole for saying that,
because what musician wants to hear that? (In fact, I'm reasonably sure
that, if this album didn't exist, I'd be on the other side, screaming that
they needed new stuff…)
There is one really good song on the album, though, one with a direct melody
line and clichthat actually feel earnest and endearing. It's unforced,
and – frankly – catchy
and it was co-penned by Hunter and, well, Garcia. "Liberty" is a sweet,
pretty tune with nice turns of phrase, Warren Haynes' slide guitar matching
Hunter's simple lyrics. It is these last two elements that are particularly
nice — a simple communication of ideas. On There and Back Again,
this communication seems to be stifled — as if the band decided ahead of
time to present a unified, guarded front. They knew what they were going
for, and they got it — not a very exciting fate.