What a surprise to find Trey Anastasio, Phish’s guitarist, main songwriter, and de facto leader, settle comfortably into some seductive get-downs on his solo debut, Trey Anastasio. Perhaps he needed a little distance from the temporarily disbanded Phish to find his inner B-boy. Anastasio has expanded his musical palette considerably, rounding out the usual rock lineup with horns, a percussionist, backup singers, and, on two tracks, a string section. The larger ensemble gives him the tools he needs to nimbly venture into uncharted territory.
For the most part, the album is an ebullient musical Mardi Gras, with Anastasio’s dexterous, hard-driving guitar work the unifying thread. In the spirit of Phish’s excellent 2000 release ”Farmhouse,” Trey Anastasio revels in pared-down song structures and a light lyrical touch. It also reveals the guitarist’s talent for large-screen arrangements; the spiky, playful horn charts sprinkled throughout echo ”Sign O’ the Times”-era Prince.
The opener, ”Alive Again,” is a tempest in a tiki lounge. A calypso workout punctuated by cowbell accents and punch-drunk horns, it’s a completely unforced genre experiment. That blithe, gently funky vibe is carried over into ”Cayman Review,” which features a chicken-scratch guitar riff that wriggles through a deep-dish backbeat, and ”Push On ‘Til the Day,” which boasts a syncopated vamp (good God!) that would do James Brown proud.
”Night Speaks to a Woman” and ”Money, Love and Change” are as close as Anastasio has ever come to straight-up R&B. Both songs are powered by serpentine guitar figures and big booming drums, with soulful vocals by Anastasio, who sounds as if he’s been studying old Staple Singers albums.
Despite the album’s tent-revival vibe, Phish-heads will by no means feel betrayed. Anastasio leaves a wide berth for focused jamming on tracks like ”Push On ‘Til the Day” and ”Last Tube.” ”Mr. Completely,” a drone-y, spacey shot of psychedelia, brings Anastasio back around to his ”Revolver” roots. ”Drifting,” a loping country-rock ambler, could have been an outtake from ”Farmhouse,” while the closer, ”Ether Sunday,” is a tender declaration of peaceful, easy feelings with busy-doing-nothing lyrics that connect Anastasio to poets of the prosaic like Victoria Williams and Guy Clark.
Still, the CD’s huge stylistic leaps may prompt some to ask whether Anastasio will forsake Phish’s rock-prog-country thang for Buena Vista funk. Regardless of the group’s future, Anastasio proves he’s no longer a slouch in the pocket.