Trey Anastasio
Paper Wheels

(Rubber Jungle Records/ATO Records)

Trey 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.

It could 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 moment now.

Farmhouse (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 "surprise".

It's at 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.

After the 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 Columbia/Sony.

Bigger 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.

After 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.

Let's 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.

Let's have a look at the individual tracks appearing on the album.

Sometime 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.

The Song 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.

Never 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.

In Rounds 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.

Flying 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.

Invisible 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.

Lever Boy 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 guitar.

Bounce 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.

Liquid 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.

Paper 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 French.

Speak To 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.

Cartwheels 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.

Anastasio 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

© Beppe Colli 2015 | Dec. 12, 2015