What can a guy do? Employ big band to tackle an African sound on your solo debut‚ and it's labeled as self-indulgent. Revert to more familiar territory‚ and the critics line up to brand it "noodle." Abandon your trusty guitar for an experimental studio attempt‚ and even some of the loyalists toss you under the bus. When it comes to life in the recording studio‚ Trey Anastasio can't win.
Yet there is a lot to like with his most recent‚ Traveler‚ the product of a collaboration with indie producer Peter Katis (The National‚ Interpol‚ Jonsi)‚ a left-field choice with who Anastasio saw an opportunity for evolution. Here the duo set out to utilize everything that the studio had to offer -- visualizing it‚ in fact‚ as an instrument in itself. The resulting songs step forth as beautifully busy‚ layered‚ and lush.
"Corona" opens things up and validates that spirit immediately. Lacking the usual Trey tension and twist in favor of a minimalist cacophony of melody‚ it builds upon a steady chord structure that never wavers. "Frost" is vast and empty but warm and finds embrace in winter: "Gone are silent summer rains/ wind is rolling off the plains/ bringing ice upon the breeze/making flowing waters freeze." The first real emergence of Anastasio's trademark Languedoc doesn't even arrive until the five spot in "Pigtail‚" a quirky‚ playful rocker that surges in its swing.
The undeniable heroes here‚ however‚ are in the eccentricities of "Land of Nod" and "Scabbard." "Nod" builds off of alleyway rustbucket percussion and funky‚ furious brass and is highlighted with the appearance of an absolutely outer space theremin. "Scabbard" stands as Traveler's centerpiece‚ replete with zany turns‚ xylophone weirdness and atmospheric glory. Precisely what Steve Lillywhite was unable to achieve with "Time Turns Elastic‚" the fluid movements of "Scabbard" always feel satisfyingly unpredictable moving forward: a sequence of half-conscious contemplation suddenly rescued by triumphant orchestral swells‚ gorgeous finger-plucking and rapid percussive assault.
Conceptually‚ Traveler is an album of contrasts: the sacrifice of individual indulgence for the good of the whole; the divide between past and future‚ light and dark -- a pensive look backward at turbulence and a buoyant step forward; Anastasio's soaring orchestral elegance atop Katis's raw and gnaw lo-fi.
Alas‚ there are major faults. "Let Me Lie‚" a song which Anastasio has already recorded twice before‚ achieves its best finish here but it feels too secondhand for the integrity of the summative piece. Likewise‚ a cover of the Gorillaz's "Clint Eastwood" is way out of place and stakes the very heart of the album. And while Anastasio lyrically can sound positively Zen without trying‚ his efforts to get serious often feel clichéd and underwhelming‚ and detract a bit from the scope of a couple of strong songs in "Architect" and "Traveler."
Still it's tough to hammer a guy that continues to push his musical possibilities‚ and remains as willing to accept the criticism as he does the praise. There are not too many fat-happy rockers these days that can say the same. So be it if Anastasio has to flip the bird at certain circles from time to time.