The Horseshoe Curve – Trey Anastasio
Sitting undisturbed in its jewel case — as it is not right now, for better or worse — The Horseshoe Curve is a perfectly acceptable album for Trey Anastasio to release at this point in his career. Unbothersome, really: a collection of outtakes and leftover jams from the Trey Anastasio Band, issued while Anastasio himself enjoys his court-ordered clean-up and figures out what comes next. It’s a place plenty of rock stars find themselves, this wilderness, be it the result of too many drugs, too few drugs, age, parenthood, or anything really.
The idea that Trey Anastasio has somehow gone off-course has, by now, disseminated fairly widely throughout the type of people who care about his music. But there was never any map to begin with. The particular skill Anastasio was armed with in Phish — what his prodigious formal talents as a songwriter, arranger, guitarist, and bandleader added up to — was the ability to somehow make it feel like there was a course. Literally. Not metaphorically. Encoded in his best songs — from the willful undergrad fireworks of "You Enjoy Myself" to the gentle lull of the more middle-aged "Sleep" — was pure compositional movement.
The Horseshoe Curve begins practically in medias res, with "Sidewalks of San Francisco," already trundling in a languid groove. Conceptually, perhaps, it can be read as something like an overture: the groove continues in some form for the better part of the album, in a bassline or a horn part. Track marks are mostly indistinguishable. Drama only arrives with the variations. Five seconds of lush percussive atonality about five minutes into "Olivia" herald what sounds like two jams folded over one another, ala Charles Ives’ marching bands. It stabilizes within two minutes, though is enthralling while it lasts. On "The Horseshoe Curve" itself, a live jam excerpt, just after a lonesome train whistle blows in time with the band, Anastasio stomps some effects and phases his guitar alongside Peter Apfelbaum’s flute, which is a neat trick. Quickly, though, the jam fades, no movement at all, and the moment is left uncontextualized.
"Noodle Rave" fares best as a coherent piece of music. The brass moans and morphs in the head while a distorted marimba (!?) fuzzes out a countermelody. Anastasio's brief intro solo doesn't add much, though he passes the baton to saxophonists Apfelbaum, Dave Grippo, and Russ Remington (not sure which players take the two solos, exactly, but they smoke). On each pass, the band gradually brings the strange horn moan of the intro back in behind the saxophonist, building him a stranger and stranger platform. They're in and out in just over six minutes. And then back to the album's regularly scheduled groove.
There is nothing wrong with the Horseshoe Curve, except that it kinda makes me want to gnaw my arm off. But only when I listen to it. So maybe "gnaw" was a bit of a strong word but "teeth mildly to keep myself entertained" was a bit too clunky to fit in the sentence. Really, as far as vaguely funky hippie jams go, The Horseshoe Curve is what it is, but it doesn’t feel like much of a statement. It is unmistakably Anastasio, though, albeit Anastasio without the ambition of even a short-term destination. If not Zen, then it’s at least life. And, if not life, then maybe it’s just a necessary thing for one to make when he realizes that the map he’d been following was a not-to-scale representation of the territory printed on a paper placemat. The desert looked a lot smaller there. Or maybe it’s not a metaphor at all.