Being pigeonholed as a noodling jam-band guitarist has got to take a toll on a well-rounded guy like Trey Anastasio. He’s fronted Phish for almost 30 years; for more than half of that time they’ve been the leaders of the Hacky Sack pack. Anastasio has tried more than once to put everything Phish behind him, but — like the exasperated Michael Corleone of The Godfather: Part III — just when he thinks he’s out, he’s pulled back in.
No matter what he does, Anastasio can’t seem to shake Phish or their legacy. Even without his three longtime musical partners, his solo albums sound like Phish records. That probably explains why he recruited members of Mates of State and the National (among other indie-rock notables) to help shape his eighth solo LP, Traveler, a slight indie-pop detour that trades stretched-out showpieces for (mostly) compact songs.
It’s not always the snuggest fit. Anastasio has never been much of a singer; his limited range really isn’t suited for much more than the jam-based music he’s played with Phish for all these years and, like on most of Traveler undemanding indie rock. There’s a good reason he’s best known for his guitar playing.
But on ‘Traveler, he’s not so much a prodigious instrumentalist as a multitasking frontman. Occasionally it all falls together like he plans: The opening ‘Corona’ serves as a breezy gateway to a world that sounds less uptight than the one he usually kicks around in. ‘Pigtail’ is pure pop gold with handclaps and blaring brass. And ‘Scabbard’’s polyrhythmic percussion is constructed around music-school time shifts that make it sound like a cross between Animal Collective and Frank Zappa.
Still, Anastasio can’t quite keep his adventurous flights at safe cruising altitudes. ‘The Land of Nod’ is basically three and a half minutes of farting horns, woozy theremin and nonsense lyrics about sleeping. In other words, it’s a Phish song. And the cover of Gorillaz’s ‘Clint Eastwood’ is totally pointless. Yet even with its bumps, Traveler may be Anastasio’s most likable solo record. But those turbulent spots prevent it from being anything other than just another album by that guy in Phish.