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Former Phish ‘phrontman’ plays new style

Observer Scene | Thursday, October 27, 2005

Fear not, Phish fans, Trey Anastasio is back. The dexterous guitarist with the shaggy red hair is still the same old Trey who packed arenas for over 20 years as lead guitarist and vocalist of the seminal rock band Phish.

On the new studio album “Shine,” Anastasio’s first full-length studio effort as a solo artist since disbanding Phish in 2004, the popular former “phrontman” aptly balances the expectations of being jam-nation’s hero with being a rock star who doesn’t want to alienate new music fans who may not have ever heard a Phish song. “Shine” showcases Anastasio’s own craggy jam-rock persona at its best, with multi-layered sonic structures and mercurial songwriting that pushes the songs to an almost Top 40 accessibility without compromising the esoteric nature of his die-hard fans. This is easily the most listenable Anastasio studio project since Phish’s 1996 masterpiece “Billy Breathes.”

Although Anastasio’s album is an engaging and smoothly produced release, it isn’t adult contemporary rock drivel. Phish fans may have hoped that Anastasio would release a record of long, trippy jams, but on “Shine,” he focuses on doing just the opposite. By constructing an album that features the tightest songwriting and guitar playing of his long career, Anastasio has been able to eschew Phish’s singular style by making a balanced record that is more about the songwriting than the complicated riffs and melodies for which Phish was famous.

All guitar parts and lead vocals on “Shine” are by Anastasio himself, who, for the first time on any of his albums (including the Phish catalog) is the record’s sole lyricist. Still, Anastasio speaks to his fans whom he knows may have been experiencing Phish withdrawal (there is no such thing as a casual Phish fan) on “Wherever You Find It,” one of the album’s best songs, singing seemingly on how music lives on, regardless of whether bands do.

On previous studio efforts with Phish, Anastasio seemed to be indulging in exploring incessant studio noodle sessions; many songs lacked clarity and understanding, at least to those outside of Anastasio’s inner circle. The new release gives Anastasio the ability to showcase his abilities as a solo rock artist. He strays from becoming too “out there” and jam-band oriented, as he did on the orchestral and mostly instrumental short record “Seis De Mayo” last year. The elimination of the excess ulterior sound, which was often so prevalent in Phish’s music, diminishes the sheer range of the album, but lets Anastasio paint a unique picture for each song.

On “Black,” Anastasio provides numerous guitar fills that during Phish times would have been provided by Phish keyboardist Page McConnell or drummer Jon Fishman. Thus, the album evolves as a guitar-centric pop album that holds more in common with Dave Matthews Band’s friendly chord progressions than Frank Zappa or The Dead. The influence of Matthews is quite evident, and “Shine” is a kindred spirit with Matthews’ first solo effort, “Some Devil,” from 2003. The two even toured together after that record was released as part of the “Dave Matthews & Friends” super group also featuring Tim Reynolds and Brady Blade.

“Air Said To Me” is a tune that features frazzled and frantic guitar rhythms that are so tightly wound it feels like Anastasio is untwisting the melody as it quickly swirls along. Anastasio’s use of down-tempo and up-tempo vocal dynamics lend the track a semblance of Bob Seger-like bombast, furthering the album’s somewhat retro persona. By the time you reach this track, you’ll start to think that Anastasio is more like Neil Young at heart than Jerry Garcia.

On “Love Is Freedom,” Anastasio strums his acoustic guitar in way that is reminiscent of Phish’s beautiful ballad “Waste.” But the song doesn’t drag on like some other Phish songs; it paces itself and changes directions at almost every new measure. Each new drum roll segues into sizzling guitar solos that encompass the chorus and empower it. Again, Anastasio’s guitar is at the center of self-expression on this tune, but the vocals are surprisingly strong.

“Shine” is an earnest album of personal growth, healing and the jam community’s changing nature. Will it be disappointing to Phish fans who love the raucous and interpretive live recordings that band produced constantly for over twenty years? Yes.

But, at the same time, it enables Anastasio to finally be appreciated as a serious rock songwriter and not just some electric guitar whiz leading the hippie masses.