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Game Changer: Phish’s Trey Anastasio Reaches Higher Ground On ‘Paper Wheels’

Artists, like all living things, are subject to evolution, albeit to varying degrees. If you are a fan of Phish’s Trey Anastasio and his solo project, the Trey Anastasio Band (TAB), then you have been privileged to witness this man’s remarkable growth, as an artist and as a man, over the past few decades. Though his growth has been punctuated by some marked de-evolution, the artist that graces the stage today is a bastion of health, creativity, positive energy and musical variety. And with the imminent release of his 10th solo effort, the LP Paper Wheels, a whole new breed of compositions is being served up by Anastasio and his co-conspirators; namely his superb band and his songwriting partners Steve Pollak and Tom Marshall.

At TAB’s recent performance at the ornate Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, NY, I heard “The Song” for the first time. Yes, that’s right, a song called “The Song”. The simple name belies a powerful composition. An advance-released cut off Paper Wheels, co-written by Steve Pollak, aka The Dude of Life, this number marches proudly and is incredibly accessible and catchy, yet its integrity remains intact. Built on the groundwork of the fluid interplay between Trey’s delicate riffing and Ray Paczkowski’s soulful organ work, paired with a vocal chorus so powerful and irresistible that it seizes you, it forces you to sing along. “And the hands on the clock keeps ticking, just rolling along, in the end all that’s left is the song.” The line in the bridge “blindsided when I least expected” is fitting, as I was taken unawares by the punch and potency of this song.

Another Trey/Dude composition, “Flying Machines” opens with a sparse and delicate arrangement; Anastasio’s voice, conveying honesty, is vulnerable and exposed over Paczkowski’s lullaby piano. With an uptick in energy, evoking wisps of Smokey Robinson, enter the indispensable doo-wop vocal stylings of Jennifer Hartswick (vocals/trumpet) and Natalie Cressman (vocals/trombone), pushing the gospel-flavored song to shine brilliantly at its apex. “Can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings” is sung with certainty by Anastasio, a man looking forward to a life that has been steadily on the mend for a good part of the last decade after a harrowing and well publicized bout with addiction.

Effectively counterbalancing the brighter Anastasio/Pollak compositions is “Lever Boy”, a dark and moody cut written with Tom Marshall. Unusually arranged and reminiscent of early Radiohead, the song opens cryptically, pensive and dark, soon exploding into a grand chorus that soars; “Tie me down and strap me in, crush my heart, and take a spin, around the block, around the Earth”. Drummer Russ Lawton and bass player Tony Markellis pummel the listener with energy, adeptly delivering the arena-rock grandeur. At once glamorous and gripping, the song catapults to its zenith before falling into a Zappa-like, horn-heavy instrumental narrative, labyrinthine and orchestral, simply magnificent. Eschewing a traditional format to great effect, “Lever Boy” is sublime.

Following “Lever Boy”, “Bounce” feels bright and sunny right out of the gate. Wistful, light and airy, Tom Marshall’s dreamer yearns to sleep a little longer, examining his limits, testing boundaries, perhaps waiting for the day life outshines his dreams; “In dreams I bounce, but never can I fly; they end because I always bounce too high”. The mood is whimsical and rather delightful. The second half of “Bounce” raises the ante, dropping into a kinetic up-tempo groove with a Saint of Circumstance swagger, a supreme vehicle for a dose of vintage Trey Grit as he smokes out a fuzzy solo in his inimitable tone. This song, in TAB’s live rotation for almost two years now is a reliable crowd pleaser, and understandably so. The harmonies in “Bounce” are exquisite; indeed, the TAB ladies color the sound throughout Paper Wheels with luxurious sass and attitude. And with the recent addition of multi-instrumentalist/vocalist James Casey, the TAB sound could not be fuller or fatter.

“Cartwheels”, a refreshingly melodic yet bittersweet number, is raw and earnest. Arguably the album’s most poignant track, it renders a strikingly beautiful portrait to close out the album. Pollak’s lyrics, heartfelt and tender, will resonate for many, illuminating the tale of a life lived in mixed emotion, balanced by blessings and backpedaling alike. “When you hit the bottom, and it feels like there’s nothing more, at least you can’t fall out of bed; you’re already on the floor.” Pollak, who like all of us bears the scars of a trying existence, has concisely packaged his pain and resilience here so poignantly, it’s moving. Such raw unfettered emotion is atypical for The Dude of Life, but the end product here is no less touching.

Paper Wheels promises to be a transformational record for Anastasio. Produced by Anastasio along with Bryce Goggin in Trey’s Vermont studio The Barn, the album’s warm vibrancy and familiar American rock flavor will draw a broader interest than past efforts. Diehard fans of Anastasio may love to keep their secret all to themselves, but they also secretly wish for him the recognition he deserves. Though the terms pop or mainstream are too static to ever affix to an Anastasio composition, Trey’s writing has definitely moved in a direction that will broaden his appeal, which could be considered limited especially when juxtaposed against such a long and prolific career.

An artist who redundantly churns out album after album with little variety fails to remain relevant. This has never been the case or the game plan for Trey Anastasio. He has continued to reinvent himself year after year, album after album. Critics have often, and unfairly, lambasted Anastasio for his songwriting or alleged lack thereof, asserting that his compositions lack identifiable structure and form, that they are merely vehicles for indulgent noodling. Though instrumental improvisation and exploration has always been a hallmark of his style, here there is much closer attention paid to the song than to the jam. Here, even for the novice listener, there is no search for the song; all that’s left is the song, with just a perfect schmear of the jam. Paper Wheels could be regarded as one of his best efforts to date; with musical packaging so refined and elegant, it may be difficult to overlook Mr. Anastasio this time.

By Danny Steinman (@dannysteinman)