Bar 17 – Trey Anastasio
Rubber Jungle Records
At first, it didn't bother me a smidge that the advance copy of Trey Anastasio's Bar 17 was unrippable to my iPod. But then I kept listening, and now it bothers me, oh, double-a-smidge, because fairly half of the album is rather good, and hitting the skip button only makes me feel guilty (or, at least, guilty for not feeling guilty, or whatever). At its best, Bar 17 returns Anastasio to the adventurous spirit of Phish, equal parts playful and elegant. At its worst, Bar 17 plunges into the interminably mopey gloom room.
There is a lot to like, thankfully. If there is something mildly awkward about the verses of the disc opening "Host Across the Potomac," Anastasio's lyrics abstract and unrhyming, then it is put to good effect when the ending blossoms into a triumphant hook. "Sky rockets! Alive and breathing!" Anastasio sings, Mike Gordon's familiar bass mimicking them.
Anastasio's weird side returns on "Goodbye Head," another one of the four songs performed by Anastasio, Gordon, and the Benevento Russo Duo. From its gliding verse rhythm to the sailing harmonies tagged on the chorus, "Goodbye Head" smacks of epic. And, after three minutes, it swoops in — and, not coincidentally, so does the orchestra. It's an alright trip, the type of episodic instrumental music Anastasio wrote so rarely during Phish's later days. And he gets even weirder on the disc-closing "Cincinnati," recorded by the big band incarnation of his solo group, leading an old school atonal jazz orchestration that eventually snaps to sleek, undeniable attention (the strings returning to play the album home).
Elsewhere, Anastasio succeeds at fusing his compositional yearnings with his grown-up hippie music. "If You're Walking" is a vaguely swinging rock groove — one might imagine a leaner version of the '90s Grateful Dead trying their hand it — with a sunny vibe, a pleasantly knotty chorus, a bunch of right surprising changes for Anastasio to solo over, and an improbable sound collage as the band (here, featuring Manhattan jazz percussion stalwarts Ben Perowsky and Cyro Baptista) slides to an end. "Empty House" — the clear winner the sad sack trilogy near the album's end, also featuring "Gloomy Sky" and "Shadow" — has Anastasio in fingerpicking mode, the verse and melody effortlessly achieving the simple grace he has often sought to convey.
And then there are the songs that I'd like to keep separated from my iPod. The throwaway summer set-fillers, "Mud City" and "Dragonfly" — both horn-abetted, the latter with a nifty intro tag — are mostly inoffensive. "Let Me Lie" — though it has a clever construction — is worse. At this point in my life, I don't need to hear Anastasio sing about how he wants to "peel [his] shirt off" so he can "feel the burn" while he's riding his, uh, bike. But maybe that's just me. Other excursions in sad-sackery have a few quasi-interesting exchanges between the strings and Anastasio's guitar, though the songs just aren't very appealing (especially Joan Wasser's soul-sucking AOR-pop "she gone" backing vocal turn on "Shadow").
Even at the album's worst, there are moments that feel nice — a chorus that catches here ("Gloomy Sky"), and a jam that almost ignites there ("Bar 17," though the band always seems a half-beat behind Anastasio, especially drummer Skeeto Valdez). It's not bad, but it's not special either. It's just some guys jamming, and it's sure not Phish. Or Fish. But it is Trey Anastasio, and — thankfully — that still does count for a lot. Really.