It’s been a while since Trey Anastasio has released a proper studio album. Phish’s lead guitarist was quite active as a solo artist during his main band’s various hiatuses in the ‘00s, touring and recording extensively with the not so creatively named Trey Anastasio Band (TAB), which ranged in size from a guitar-bass-drums trio to an expanded seven or eight-piece band with a full horn section. But the last time Anastasio hit the studio with his band was way back in ‘06, and the result was the loose and wide-ranging Bar 17. It’s not like Anastasio hasn’t been busy over the past six years. There was the drug conviction and house arrest, which resulted in ‘07’s odds and ends collection The Horseshoe Curve . And there was his return to symphonic composing, with ‘09’s Time Turns Elastic. And yeah, Phish got back together, too.
But Traveler essentially picks up from where the TAB left off back in ‘06. The album combines the bright hooks of 2005’s Shine with the anything-goes feel of Bar 17, and does it in a concise 45 minutes and 10 songs. The two cuts that stand out initially are the ones you’ve probably heard before, albeit in different versions. “Let Me Lie” first showed up on Bar 17, and also made an appearance on Phish’s limited release Party Time album in ‘09. But this might be the best studio version of the song. Previous versions have been near the top of Anastasio’s vocal range, making for a pretty thin lead performance. But having TAB members Jennifer Hartswick and Nellie Cressman on board to provide high backing vocals has freed up Anastasio to lower the key of the song. This version is now in a much more comfortable singing range for him, and it gives the song, a melancholy yet sweet ballad, a more full-bodied sound.
The other familiar song is the band’s cover of “Clint Eastwood.” Yes, the Gorillaz song. It’s a surprisingly good fit for the TAB. Anastasio’s mid-range voice is a good match for the original laid-back Damon Albarn performance, and the band ably reproduces the song’s loping groove. Anastasio, for his part, is content to just play the song’s barely-there guitar part without trying to shoehorn in something more complicated. Instead he lets the spotlight fall squarely on Hartswick, who takes the song’s rapped verses and gives them a full-on soul-diva makeover. Her performance gives the cover a unique spin without trying to mess with what made the song work in the first place.
The remainder of the album mostly plays to Anastasio’s strengths. “Pigtail” is an upbeat pop-rocker that has all of the classic hallmarks of an Anastasio pop song. The opening piles on lyrics that are catchy but don’t make a lot of sense out of context: “I’m halfway fully nearly close to just beyond it / Right beside and just a hand’s breadth in between next to it closer.” But anybody who’s listened to a bit of Phish over the years will likely find this charmingly familiar. Plus, the song comes around to a heck of a hooky chorus and features a winning, albeit short, guitar solo. In the same vein is “Architect”, which begins with an expanded percussion groove but quickly spins into a lush pop song with a beautiful chorus. “Reconvene, reconnect / Raise a glass to the architect / ‘Cause it turned out better / So much better / Than we ever did expect.” The underlying music is so bright and happy that it’s difficult not to smile when that chorus hits.
More interesting from a musical standpoint are the songs that take full advantage of the TAB horn section. “Land of Nod” ladles on the percussion and features a funky minor key trombone lick that later expands into the whole horn section. Eventually the song gets around to a vocal refrain from Anastasio, but its main function in the music seems to be to give the song a contrasting section to the main funk groove. “Scabbard” is one of only two songs on the album to breach the six-minute point, and the loose jam in the introduction is a winning one. There’s a weird, trilling trumpet solo from Hartswick and an equally weird organ solo from Ray Paczkowski, and plenty of interesting part-doubling from Anastasio on guitar and Paczkowski on glockenspiel. Similar to “Land of Nod”, the song slides into a brief refrain, “It’s there, can you see it? / It never stops / It’s there can you see it?”, that mostly serves as an anchor point for the groove. Once the song drifts into a minor key rendition of the refrain, it moves away from it as quickly as an old school Phish song and head in other directions. Because “Scabbard” is the album’s one true improvisational track, it works as an interesting counterpoint to the rest of the album’s more pop-oriented songwriting.
Anastasio has often used the TAB as an outlet for trying things outside of the basic rock band setup that Phish employs, and Traveler successfully continues that tradition. The horn section and female vocals are used to great effect on many of the songs on this album. Clearly one of Anastasio’s more recent inspirations was Jónsi’s Go in 2010, since echoes of that album’s distinctive percussion sound can be heard all over Traveler. This makes perfect sense since Anastasio went ahead and brought in Samuli Kosminen, the architect of Go‘s percussion, to play here. Despite all the different ideas swirling around on Traveler, Anastasio keeps it solidly grounded with hummable melodies and catchy hooks. The end result is an album that manages to smoothly integrate a lot of Anastasio’s diverse musical interests into one highly listenable package.