Trey Anastasio


(Elektra; 2005)

By David M. Goldstein | 21 December 2007

My many years of blind allegiance to Phish nation automatically finds me giving the benefit of the doubt to all Trey Anastasio projects. I thought the man was a God in my formative years, and I’ve probably spent enough cash on his former outfit to put at least one of his two young children through prep school, if not college.

But damn if his new record doesn’t dare the listener to shed any preconceptions that it might seriously suck. Everything about Shine, from its lame-ass title, to the overly contented Trey photo adorning its back cover practically screams "late ‘90s Carlos Santana!" Worse still, it was produced by Brendan F’in O’Brien. Long past the days when he deftly produced Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine in their infancy, the man is now infamous for adding ridiculous amounts of sheen to everything he touches; most notably gaudy string augmentations to practically every track on Bruce Springsteen’s last two, painfully overproduced, albums. Surely the ginger-haired jam king has finally tripped up?

It’s unquestionable that Shine contains more than a few of the most embarrassing recorded moments of Anastasio’s career; quite possibly the byproduct of working with a producer wholly unfamiliar with the word “no.” More often than not however, Shine serves as a fine reminder that Anastasio is a pro who’s been doing the rock thing far too long to release a crap product (if you’re into Phish, anyway). The man’s overriding taste is simply too good to fall prey to the commercial AOR laziness that afflicts aging rockers. As such, he’s still more than capable of reeling off a good number of catchy rock songs that emphasize his greatest strength aside from his virtuoso guitar playing; his undeniable warmth. You can hear evidence of the latter on the excellent “Invisible,” a wistful, camp-fire ready, acoustic number as inviting as a crackling fireplace in Anastasio’s native Vermont.

Trey’s at his best here when he keeps the song lengths hovering around the three minute mark and his vocals conversational. Songs like the title track and the danceable “Tuesday” are undoubtedly more than a little hokey, but they’re very well-written pop songs, and a logical extension of the more overtly commercial stabs (e.g. “The Connection”, “Crowd Control”) that Phish was taking on their swan song, 2004’s Undermind. “Sweet Dreams Melinda” may be little more than a pleasant slab of '70s rock radio with a chorus evocative of Pure Prairie League’s “Amie” (as in, "Amie, what you wanna do"), but Anstastio’s utter lack of pretense is commendable. And that driving arena-rock riff on “Air Said To Me”? Very Fully Completely.

But let’s dredge up some of the aforementioned weak bits, shall we? It’s to Brendan O’Brien’s (who also played bass on most of the songs here) credit that Shine doesn’t really sound like one of his productions. He multi-tracks all of Trey’s vocals, and adds some un-necessary organ and/or backing vocals here and there, but most of the time he manages to stay out of the way. But I’ve got to believe that he’s the culprit behind attempting to turn the decent “Come As Melody” into an astoundingly embarrassing “Hey Jude” arena epic complete with gospel whoas! and Anastasio screaming about how “LOVE WILL BEG!” The latter is hardly the only time on Shine that Anastasio abandons his casual vocal stylings for over-emotive caterwauling, and this only serves to draw attention to the fact that not only should he stay the hell away from his upper register, but when separated from longtime writing partner Tom Marshall, Anastasio’s stabs at meaningful lyrics are laughable. Still, plain common sense would seem to dictate that both the title and chorus of the eighth song shouldn’t be “Love Is Freedom.” While I suppose it’s possible that Anastasio is engaging in a degree of Swift-ian satire at the hands of his primary fan base, more likely O’Brien just didn’t have the balls to say no.

Shine suffers from other similarly poor artistic decisions and a dreary second half, but its more compact moments are still classic Trey, and there’s enough of those here to recommend it to anyone who’s ever experienced a slice of "kind" grilled cheese in a stadium parking lot (guilty as charged). It’s not about to replace Farmhouse or A Picture of Nectar as the studio document from which to get your Anastasio fix, but so long as the man learns to curb his newfound jones for singing about all things love, he’ll continue to hold my interest, as well as the interest of a still rabid fanbase that enables him to sell out large theatres with regularity. No other single member of Phish possesses that ability.