18 Steps – Trey Anastasio
If Shine, Trey Anastasio’s most direct stab at pop-rock, has truly been erased from existence and his latest, Bar 17, is actually the guitarist’s first post-Phish project, than it makes perfect sense for 18 Steps to exist. As Jon Fishman once eloquently said, “Trey shits music” and, indeed, since he began writing for Phish in the early 1980s, Anastasio has continuously turned out more music than any album could possibly contain. Since Phish played by its own rules, songs were allowed to drift in and out of rotation, sometimes never finding homes on proper records, other times waiting in the wings for mail order releases or archival reissues.
Falling somewhere between an EP and a full-fledged album (a mini-album for simplicity’s sake), 18 Steps reinstates those rules, salvaging nine tracks left off Bar 17 for one reason or another (some songs are obvious rejects, while others were cut for more conceptual reasons). But, in general, it’s comforting — for Phishheads, anyway — that Anastasio has decided to release 18 Steps, if only as a promotional tool, as if to prove that he’s coming home after a year abroad in the land of commercial radio or, at least, after a semester spent trying to apply.
Like Bar 17, which compiles highlights from a number of different recording sessions undertaken since Phish’s end at Coventry, 18 Steps offers a mix of straightforward rockers (“Dark and Down”), post-breakup ballads (“18 Steps”) and trite, but heartfelt, lullabies (“Home”). Similar to its companion piece, throughout 18 Steps Anastasio attempts to meld the structural charts his fans have clamored for since “Guyute” with the breezy rock structures he’s favored since Hoist. Like Bar 17, the disc also features a parade of guests, including Jon Fishman, 70 Volt Parade, various incarnations of the Trey Anastasio Band and an orchestra of well meaning classical players, all of whom help flesh out the guitarist’s decidedly latter-day Phish song structures. Not that it really matters who plays on what track because, like Shine and Bar 17 before it, 18 Steps is a true solo album, more concerned with spotlighting Anastasio’s vocal abilities, guitar tone and production approach than his interaction with other musicians.
Since 18 Steps isn’t a proper LP, it’s hard to argue with Anastasio’s song selection. But, at the same time, the mini-album does beg a number questions: Where are the spare tracks from Anastasio’s marathon recording sessions with Mike Gordon and the Duo? When did Anastasio find time to bring the current version of his touring ensemble into the studio? And, of all the orphaned latter-day Phish songs, does the world really need another studio version of “Discern” (which has now been recorded at least three times, though only two versions have been officially released)?
Thankfully 18 Steps does feature a series of new collaborations with Tom Marshall, the results of the recent songwriting trip the lyricist mentioned on his MySpace page a few months ago. While “Home” finds Anastasio tackling the same lyrical themes which bogged down Shine and portions of Bar 17 (though the latter disc comes off as more genuine), Marshall’s rich, cumbersome lyrics allow the singer to express deeper emotions than say “boots and your dragonfly.” Similarly, the whimsical “Words to Wanda” is a welcome return Phish’s oddball themes, bastardized vocal harmonies and utterly weird sounds (especially its world-informed percussion beats). When placed side-by-side with Anastasio’s self-penned lyrics, Marshall’s words shine even brighter, though, on “18 Steps,” Anastasio becomes the first man to evoke locus in his prose since, maybe, Moses.
The three numbers included from 70 Volt Parade’s repertoire, “Low,” "Dark and Down” and “18 Steps,” remain a study in contrasts. All were reportedly left off Shine because “people didn’t want to hear gloomy songs about Phish’s breakup.” But, since then, Anastasio seems to have realized that people would rather hear about Phish’s breakup than almost anything else, forcing the guitarist hide each song in a studio gimmick like nesting dolls. Though somewhat childlike, the mini-album’s title track is the most unique, an infectious sing-a-long in the guise of a multi-part opus. Meanwhile, “Dark and Down” is a harmless rocker, with some lovely backing vocals from Jen Hartswick and a short, loose-caboose akin to “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing.” “Low,” on the other hand, is marred with misplaced strings, not quite the Physical Graffiti outtake it sounds like in Anastasio’s head.
But, at the same time, 18 Steps is a relief because, despite its flaws, it sounds like something Trey Anastasio would produce. The guitarist’s breezy tone ties the album’s divergent sounds into a cohesive album (or at least mini-album), while his compositional approach is rooted in the same soil which produced classic works like “The Divided Sky” and “Split Open and Melt” (though this year’s crop is nowhere near as healthy). When Anastasio’s voice falls short, his vocals come off as frail, not forced and, unlike Shine’s overproduced take on vintage rock-radio, almost any track on 18 Steps could fit snugly on one of Phish’s final albums (“Agnes” even sounds like the “Inlaw Josie Wales’” first-cousin). Perhaps Anastasio hasn’t returned home, but at least he’s a few steps closer.