Shine – Trey Anastasio
Columbia Records 96428
Somewhere, there is a world in which former Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio's Shine is a massive hit, garnering Grammy nominations, critical accolades, and sales alike. It’s entirely possible that this world even exists in scale miniature somewhere in America. It is a world where rock radio never died, where summer skies are blue and unpolluted, gas is cheap, love is free (or, at least, freedom), President Gore is serving his second term, hip-hop never happened (though Phish still did), and Anastasio certainly didn’t issue a CD loaded with software to spy on his listeners’ computer use. I’ll be damned if I know where that world is, though. To Anastasio’s great credit, however, Shine is a completely realized fantasy, hung with all the necessary props, and Anastasio is doing his best to convince us. Shine is so fantastical, in fact, that it is probably the first batch of songs Anastasio has ever composed that sound better in the recording studio than they do on the stage.
Producer Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, Bruce Springsteen) is probably mainly to credit for what authority Shine possesses. The dozen tracks layer modest walls of electric and acoustic guitars and, frequently, O’Brien’s crystalline, buoyant Hammond. For those whose abiding interest in Phish involved Anastasio’s coiled compositions or the band’s jamming, it is here that they might look for something rewarding: in the shifting, chiming chords of "Sleep Again," swirling bridges on "Air Said To Me" and the title track, or the elaborately constructed organ/guitar outro to "Spin." Likewise, the music glides throughout with an impressively consistent airiness — but defying gravity isn’t so impressive a trick when the music itself seems so without weight.
For starters, Anastasio has shaved off anything extraneous, anything that might make a song or arrangement stick out as abnormal. Gone are the African influences that defined the Trey Anastasio Band and the complexly human compositions and interactions of Phish. Though he has flirted with it for years (and always used it as a jumping-off point), Shine is the first time Anastasio really focuses his full talents towards the pop form. The vocals are up front, his solos just another piece in the puzzle. In that highly backwards regard, it might be the most relentlessly experimental album Anastasio has ever recorded. And that’s cool! Compositionally, it’s new territory for Anastasio.
Unfortunately, however, that doesn't make it interesting or, er, good. The points of references are pure classic rock. John Lennon lends a bit of "Instant Karma" to the chorus of "Shine" (though I hoped Tenacious D might've schooled Anastasio as to the hilarity of using the phrase "we… ride" in any rock chorus, unless it's something cool, like a pterodactyl, a lyger, or a multibeast), and Skynyrd gives up the ghost for "Sweet Dreams Melinda" (try singing "Sweet Home Alabama" over the chorus). The prominence of Anastasio's vocals wouldn't be so much of a problem if the lyrics weren't so hard to swallow. They are very bad. In and of itself, this wouldn't be a huge deal. But, as has been reminded, nothing is ever in and of itself, especially not song lyrics.
With different words, some of the material would actually be pretty okay — which means, really, that it is pretty okay, but you just reaaaaaallllly gotta squint. "Tuesday" is an undeniably guilty pop confection, filled with bright guitar, while "Spin" has a cool Radiohead-like melodic turn. Like Phish songs immemorial, "Come As Melody" boasts a long string of interconnected sections, including a gently picked prologue, a quick swirl into riff-heavy chorus, more quiet, a vocal interlude, and a thrashing "Kashmir"-like outro. But it’s really hard to commit to that, as a listener, while being told to "come as melody, come as energy" by lyrics that reinforce everybody’s worst suspicions about hippies. "Sweet Dreams Melinda," meanwhile, would actually be gorgeous lyrics for a slow, sad folk ballad.
Penned by Anastasio alone without longtime lyric collaborator Tom Marshall, the lyrics tend to lack narrative, place, or enough compelling imagery to keep them moving. They are also in dire need of second (or fourth) drafts. While it's entirely possible that people don't really listen to lyrics, they probably at least glance at a song's title or register its chorus. If one drinks every time a clichs used — "Love Is Freedom," "Wherever You Find It," "Love That Breaks All Lines," come on — he’ll be shivering under the table calling for his grandmother by the end of the second side (trust me).
All of which brings me to the same inescapable conclusion: Shine is just not meant for me. I’ll call my grandmother when I’m straight and sober on Sunday afternoon, dank you vedy much. And — as condescending as it might be to say this — the people most poised to dig Shine are probably the type who aren’t old enough to drink, anyway. Phish’s world seemed pretty bizarre when they started, too, though, so maybe Shine will find a new group of kids out in the sprawl (though probably not the same type of nerds that Phish appealed to) and the whole shebang’ll make perfect sense in 20 years when Anastasio dissolves the 70 Volt Parade following a disastrous summer festival.
"You turned out to be what you'd never be," Anastasio sings on "Air Said To Me," one of the album's few lyrics that demonstrates any kind of self-consciousness. It's probably safe to say that many of Anastasio's fans can get behind the sentiment. Now if I could only get "Tuesday" out of my head…