[6 July 2006]
Phish, the jam-band phenomenon that succeeded the Grateful Dead for so many fans but was really always much better than that, called it quits about two years ago. For the faithful, it was a genuine funeral.
If you could get past the clouds of herb and the 20-minute guitar solos, Phish was a whimsical band—a group that played funk and jazz and bluegrass in about equal measures, rarely “rocking” at all. They could be loud and pop-tuneful, but their music never made the charts because it had a jerry-rigged quality: with their drummer in a dress and two guitarists bouncing on trampolines as they played, well…you weren’t supposed to take it all that seriously.
But the fans took it very seriously, obsessing over set lists and concert tours as well as any Deadhead and maybe meaning it more—proud that their favorite band was a local (Vermont) product that had played by its own rules from the start and built themselves into a quirky steamroller of a cultural force. The leader, kind of, was lead vocalist and guitarist Trey Anastasio. He’s also the guy who broke up the band in 2004 and appeared so wasted at their final concert that fans properly wondered if their hero was ending it all in destructive disappointment.
My friend Larry—a Phish obsessive who plays bass like Mike Gordon and looks pretty much just like Trey—saw it all as metaphor: his favorite band was gone, but his first child was about to be born. Unlike Trey, he wasn’t smoking much dope anymore. Very much like Trey, he was (sort of) ready to move on.
Larry and his Phish pals have gotten Shine, Trey’s first solo effort since 2004 and a disc that is very familiar, but bluntly different too. Among the faithful, it’s hard to imagine how the disc could be satisfying, but for the rest of us it seems as though Trey has finally made the real rock album that Phish seemed destined to resist for so many years. I like it a lot, but then I never had the patience for all those trippy guitar solos and funk jams. On Shine you get some solid rock songs, slathered up in guitar, organ, and punchy drums, coming out of your speakers like it was 1979 again. Sure, there are a few lyrics here (all written by Trey, which was not the case in Phish) that plainly nod to the band’s past. But, thankfully, this is not a batch of reheated Phish but something new that sounds like the music Trey might have made before he was hijacked by his own band.
One big difference here is the producer: Brendan O’Brien. In the world of Phish, the whole idea of an outside producer is alien, and Mr. O’Brien—associated primarily with bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, and Incubus or classic rockers like Neil Young, Dylan, and Springsteen—is a shocker. What he delivers here, presumably at Trey’s request, is a classic pop-rock sound with some soul backbone. Mr. O’Brien is co-credited on five of the dozen tunes, yet his fingerprints are relatively inconspicuous. The ingredients he uses are all Phish: organ, bass, and drums for rhythm, with Trey’s straight vocal sound up front, almost always relieved by his distinctively toned lead guitar. The difference? Economy and clarity.
This disc pops and bounces. The guitar solos don’t meander and gradually build; they pierce the fabric of the song and they sing. Of Mr. O’Brien’s other projects, it reminds me most of Springsteen’s 9/11 disc, The Rising, where the producer was asked to redefine Bruce with more punch and relevance without losing his basic rock sound. This, arguably, is Trey’s Rising: an album of anthems that suggests rebirth. “Tuesday” rings from the start with a Trey riff that bookends the verses in bell-tones. The chorus combines the riff and the refrain—a pop formula to suit Trey’s strengths if ever there was one. Other songs are closer to Bruce’s folk-rock troubador model: acoustic strummy-strums like the title track/opener. “Shine” rumbles down the track with the album’s message: “When the day’s come and gone / You know we all ride on”. Combined again with Trey’s tasty electric, the song tunefully tells Phish fans to get over it—the harmonies on the chorus tight and clean and seemingly cannabis-free.
Trey gets contemplative here and there, but the energy is high. “Come as Melody” features a psychedelic verse, but the contrasting riff and chorus is grade-A beef that eventually gives way to a repeated refrain supported by an orchestral swell. “Wherever You Find It” is even more easygoing, dominated by keyboard figures and a lovely minor melody. The guitar solo bends like Santana but without that unpleasant lost quality. “Sleep Again” is better still—built over a tender set of chords and a repeated melodic figure, the song is little more than a sketch or a pastel, but it’s a compelling one and certainly the only Trey song I know that could be done by Joni Mitchell without a blink.
The songs that I come back to most are “Sweet Dreams Melinda” and “Air Said to Me”. “Melinda”, simply put, is soulful. With just enough reference to “Sweet Home Alabama” in its poetic construction and southern groove, this tune lets you know that Trey has freed himself from Phish in the best way. The story of the record is that Trey headed down to Nashville’s Ocean Way Studios with little more than his guitar and his songs, and this song makes you believe it. “Melinda” is snappy and piquant, the harmony on the refrain adding a dose of gospel and the backbeat groove being less a Phish jam than a Stax snap. “Air Said to Me” is better. It rocks like a Kinks song or maybe early Elvis Costello, but with the added strength of Trey’s arcing desire on the chorus.
If you don’t much dig Trey Anastasio, then maybe it is precisely because of that desire his music always has to float out over the crowd. “Air” has a trippy Phish-ish bridge, but as the guitar leads the whole band back to the rockin’ chorus, it all seems right: “Air said to me / Turn out to be what you’d never be.” Which is Shine all over. Trey Anastasio has turned out to be a classic rocker after all. Still a little floaty, sure, and still trying to transcend rather than work it out here on the ground with the folks, but finally playing for the song itself rather than bouncing on that damned trampoline.
Welcome to Earth, Trey. Maybe: stay a while?