(Rubber Jungle Records/ATO Records)
Anastasio has a real winner here. I could add "against all odds",
since - for different reasons - the most recent albums released under his own
name and under the Phish moniker didn't exactly make one confident that such a
solid, inspired album as Paper Wheels could indeed materialize. Readers beware:
Though it features very accessible music, this is an album that will
necessitate more than a few listening sessions in order to reveal those vocal
and instrumental subtleties hidden under the surface. Here one could trace a
parallel with Aja and Gaucho, those albums released by Steely Dan at the end of
their "classic" period, especially when it comes to quite a few
detailed, inspired, instrumental passages appearing on this album. The only
minus is that lyrics are not included, while in my opinion they could have been
featured in lieu of the bizarre - and quite expensive, I think - collection of
images that are the only content of the CD booklet.
be said that in many ways Paper Wheels comes full circle to Anastasio's debut
album, the one simply titled Trey Anastasio, released in 2002 (completists will
argue that Trey Anastasio is not really Trey Anastasio's debut album, but the
sticker glued to my copy says "The debut solo album", and I always
believe stickers to tell the truth). Let's have a look at a picture of that
(2000) was both the last album released by Phish and a kind of "open
rehearsal" for Trey Anastasio the solo artist, with rhythm, music, and
musicians all showing that the leader was about to set sail. Anastasio's desire
to work with a bigger line-up, and a more varied instrumental palette, than
what the Phish quartet made possible, played a big part, at first results
proving Anastasio to be in the right, as on his aforementioned debut album,
also on the live album Plasma, released the following year, which made it
possible for those who weren't there to experience the large line-up on stage.
We see here for the first time a few names that will appear in Anastasio's
groups til the release of Paper Wheels: Russ Lawton, on drums; Tony Markellis,
on bass; Ray Paczkowski, on keyboards; Jennifer Hartswick, on trumpet and very
soulful vocals. The new rhythm section was leaner, with a more
"direct" approach, than Phish; keyboards worked well as a complement
to the leader's guitar phrasing; while Hartswick was the proverbial
this point that Phish got back together, only to split again, the excellent
Round Room (2002) and the inscrutable Undermind (2004) acting as the confines
of a mystery.
release of the orchestral interlude Seis De Mayo (2004), Anastasio appeared to
be ready for the big time. Unfortunately, Shine (2005) was one of those albums
- there were about fifty of them - where Sony included a Copy Protection
program that could cause mayhem if played on one's computer; and so - in a war
of rootkit, malware, and so on - the music got lost. Which I'm sure was not
great fun for Anastasio, who had left Elektra in order to sign for
mysteries appeared to be waiting in the 71' Bar 17 (2006), a giant - and in
some ways, illogical - album, featuring Cinemascopic-sounding strings, rock
guitars, and strangely frail vocal performances from Anastasio. Hence, one
could not really be surprised upon learning of Anastasio being arrested, just a
few months after the album release. Now one was bound to listen to the album
with a quite different set of ears. So, The Horseshoe Curve (2007) could only
work as a post-scriptum whose main function was to show the jazzy-sounding high
quality of the most recent Anastasio line-up.
Phish got together again, Anastasio tried to use a fresh approach in his solo
career on the album titled Traveler (2012), but those musical climates he chose
for said album - those of artists such as The National, Gorillaz, and Jónsi -
didn't work too well. Meanwhile, Fuego (2014) showed that Phish were still a
great quartet, with big thanks to Bob Ezrin, acting as the album's producer and
orchestrator. One was left to wonder whether Anastasio the solo artist had much
left to say.
As I said
in the opening section of this review, we now know that the new album is a
great Trey Anastasio album. By now, we also know that what was announced before
the album was released - i.e., that the album showed obvious traces of the
Summer concerts Anastasio played as a guest on guitar in a few Grateful Dead
"farewell" concerts; and that the album was influenced by Stax, with
many tracks appearing as first or second takes - was not really true. Recording
sessions took place in 2014. While the quite detailed arranging and
orchestration work obviously necessitated a lot of time and effort.
have a look at those who contributed to the album. Besides the above-mentioned
Lawton, Markellis, Paczkowski, and Hartswick we have: Natalie Cressman, on
trombone and vocals; and James Casey, on saxophone, flute, percussion, and
keyboards. Recorded in Trey Anastasio's studio, The Barn, the album was
produced by Anastasio with long-time collaborator Bryce Goggin; recorded by Ben
Collette; and mixed by Elliot Scheiner - how about that, for a Steely Dan
connection? When it comes to arrangements, Anastasio enlisted proven entities
such as Don Hart for horns and Rob Moose for strings. I'm not familiar with
Carmel Dean, who arranged the vocal parts with Anastasio.
have a look at the individual tracks appearing on the album.
After Sunset opens the album with an agile, "dry", light-sounding
groove that reminds me of Steely Dan, featuring vocals, Fender Rhodes, and
guitar. The "B" section almost sounds as one is listening to music by
Donald Fagen. Fine guitar solo by Anastasio at the end: very relaxed, finely
"dressed" by winds and vocals.
is the classic Anastasio "ballad" that soon becomes an earworm. Fine
vocal parts in the verses, which come to the fore in the choruses. It's the
kind of track that when listened to on the radio can make one feel happy.
starts with a unison arpeggio of guitar and piano, then the rhythm section,
then a bittersweet melody. Fine vocal parts. Quite smoothly, Anastasio's guitar
takes a solo with good backing by ride cymbal, fine phrasing from the bass
guitar, and nice piano chords. The solo gets progressively hotter, with
excellent piano work. It's an episode that's bound to remind one of Phish, but
it doesn't sound stale.
has a groovy, funky, start, starring the Clavinet. Anastasio gets funky, with
fine vocal backing. Excellent Hammond (it sounds like a real one to me) that
takes a solo, the wind section coming to the fore with a great riff. Great
guitar solo with vocal backing.
Machines is a light-sounding ballad, with fine vocals, relaxed tempo, piano to
the fore. Unison vocals in the "Steely Dan style". Strings mixed
quite low. Fine chorus. Subtle guitar work.
Knife has an agile groove, piano, and cymbal. A fine melody, good vocal work,
it gets "altitude" in the chorus. The guitar solo is lively, but also
sad-sounding. Excellent backing by the rhythm section and organ. At the end,
it's back to the melody and vocals.
flows at a mid-tempo that will sound familiar to all fans of Anastasio/Phish.
Nice mix of snare drum/high-hat/bass drum and guitar harmonics. The melody is
sung quite well, while the "B" section is bound to remind one of
Steely Dan. It gets progressively more intense, the strings in the background
giving the track a lot of "air". It's at this point that vocals say
"So take a spin": here the tempo doubles, suddenly a melody appears
that is bound to remind one of Frank Zappa and the music of Southern Italy,
with a beautiful orchestration featuring trumpet and flute, and very subtle
starts as a kind of Soul Ballad starring vocals and piano. Here Anastasio and
background vocals have a dialogue, with fine counterpoint. The sound of
drumsticks going "CLICK", the tempo doubles, then a fantastic
entrance by the guitar with fine backing from piano and the rhythm section. The
wind section appears, then vocals go "Bounce!", with an instrumental
coda for winds and guitar. "Too high!", and a false ending. "Too
high!". A song that will sound fantastic in concert.
Time starts with the wind section, a kind of "slow bossa nova", great
winds, Anastasio doubling his vocals, engulfed by winds. Hi-hat
"hits", a thin-sounding guitar, again the whole is bound to remind
one of Steely Dan (and it's only the lack of bitterness so typical of Donald
Fagen's vocals that makes this song sound sad, not desperate). A fine moment
from the wind section, the thin guitar again, in a fine unison with the horn
section. The tempo gets faster, then there's a guitar melody quite reminiscent
of the style of Jerry Garcia, the track ending with a long coda.
Wheels reminded me - quite strange, this - of Walter Becker's album Circus
Money. Fine melody, Anastasio with fine vocal accompaniment, the mix
highlighting the high-hat/bass figure. "We'll all speak French one
day". A catchy chorus, then a guitar solo, then a spoken part... in
Me has a great "funky" start, the high-hat played in the half-open
position with both hands, unison vocals by Anastasio and vocal chorus, guitar,
lively bass, fine mix of guitar and electric piano. Fantastic melody for winds.
A false ending, and it's back to the wind section, this time playing a long
written section played unison with Anastasio's guitar. The mood gets fast, then
voices with no backing bring the track to its close.
ends the album in a very up, optimistic key, Anastasio's vocals in unison with
the vocal backing. The chorus has vocals sounding "almost calypso",
with a relaxed groove. "Everything's gonna be just fine/Got no time for a
troubled mind". Joyous vocal coda, here's the guitar, then the organ.
has put a lot of work and effort into this album, and lotsa content. I'm almost
certain readers will want to give themselves a great present by giving this
album their undivided attention.
© Beppe Colli 2015
CloudsandClocks.net | Dec. 12, 2015