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Saturday, December 02, 2023

If you teach a man to Phish, he will make you an album

When one thinks of Phish, lengthy jams and snide hippy jokes often crop up first, but hardly ever their songwriting prowess. Furthermore, when one asks a Phish fan their thoughts on lead singer and guitar player Trey Anastasio’s side projects, they will probably be greeted with an eye-roll and a lengthy explanation as to either why these albums are the greatest thing to ever happen to Phish or the worst possible thing to ever happen to Phish.

For his latest studio album, Traveler, Anastasio brought in a variety of collaborators, both new and old, in addition to the band he has been touring with for the past two years. The album features a horn section of Natalie Cressman, Jennifer Hartswick, and newcomer and Lettuce tenor saxophonist James Casey along with other Trey Anastasio Band mainstays such as Russ Lawton, Tony Markellis and Ray Paczkowski.

In addition to those former members of the band, Anastasio brought in Peter Katis to co-produce the album. Katis has worked with bands such as The National, Interpol and Jónsi prior to working with Anastasio, which helped him bring in Mates of State’s Kori Gardner, The National’s Bryan Devendorf and Matt Berninger, Bon Iver’s Rob Moose, and Icelandic percussionist Samuli Kosminen.

Album opener “Corona” is a song Anastasio calls a sort of homage to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Anastasio also notably performs the xylophone on the song, giving it a Frank Zappa feel. The song starts by immersing the listener into a dream world of sorts as toy pianos pan from side to side before the very poppy song truly kicks off. Next comes “Let Me Lie,” a song that had been recorded twice previously on Anastasio’s 2006 album Bar 17 as well as on the 2009 Phish release Party Time. Despite the same lyrics as the prior two recordings of the song, it feels new with a variety of instruments on the track as the additional musicians make it a fuller musical number, as opposed to a bathroom break during Phish shows.

After “Frost” comes “Land of Nod,” which is one of the most uncharacteristically bizarre songs ever written by Anastasio. This mostly instrumental tune sounds like a cross between Portishead and Frank Zappa with a strong electronic influence at the beginning before fading into a chant of “I was asleep for so long,” instruments wavering in and out of the background, finally arriving at an abrupt conclusion.

“Pigtail” offers a slight breather in the album between “Land of Nod” and “Scabbard,” which comes next. Anastasio and his longtime collaborator Tom Marshall wrote “Pigtail” together and gave it a classic Trey Anastasio Band sound—fitting, considering Phish once played the song.

“Scabbard” is up next and is hands down the most intricate song of the album, and happens to be my favorite.

This very Frank Zappa-esque song melds the sounds of a xylophone, a subtle organ, a strong guitar line and strong sound from the bass to create the most sonically interesting song on the album. Though Anastasio comes from a band known for not using the studio to its fullest potential, “Scabbard” is more than a step in the right direction as he takes advantage of the myriad of musicians at his disposal.

The first and only cover on the album comes next when they take on the Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood.” While very ambitious to attempt to tackle one of the most distinctive songs of the 21st Century, the song falls flat, as the attempts to replicate the dub and hip-hop elements of the song do not fully work. After “Architect” comes “Valentine,” a Trey Anastasio Band live staple over the past couple of years.

“Valentine” is a quintessential Anastasio song featuring fantastic backup vocals by Cressman and Hartswick as they double the horn line, which in turn accents the song’s outro. One of the strongest lyrically on the album, the Anastasio and Marshall-penned tune and title track, “Traveler” aptly brings the whole piece to a strong close.

Overall, despite some inconsistencies, the album is a big step in the right direction for Anastasio. Despite a dearth of new Phish material over the past couple of years, songs such as “Scabbard” give Phish fans something to look forward to beyond the less-exciting and other recently debuted songs such as “My Problem Right There” and “Summer of ’89.”

Though this album is more like a double than a home run, Anastasio’s willingness to try new things and work with new collaborators is certainly moving him in the right direction, and hopefully with time we’ll be able to tell if these songs take on new life on stage.

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