Fort Worth native and jam genre extraordinaire Trey Anastasio recently put out a solo album called Paper Wheels. Whether accidentally or by design, it’s an ideal point of entry into the life and work of Phish’s terrifyingly prolific frontman (if you can call him that), especially for someone who hates the band — someone like me. It’s easily the most listenable Phish-related project I’ve yet encountered. Preliminary reasons for this include: The longest track wraps up at six minutes and change; the sound evokes California’s vibe in the early ‘70s, or at least how I imagine it; and Anastasio has obviously put effort into composing studio songs recognizable as such, even to non-prog-heads.
As I’ve not been shy about saying, I’m one such non-prog-head and remain convinced there are good aesthetic reasons to be so. But I can sympathize with the more polite of the many respondents to our strongly worded coverage a few months back, who simply felt their favorite band wasn’t getting the deserved fair shake, or perhaps even mourned the joys cut off by/from my cynical mind — even if I don’t remotely share the view that conversion might be just a tweet away.
Lest you think I’m chiefly here to peck at old wounds, or (God forbid) re-troll some easy marks, it’s worth mentioning that I still (still!) get the occasional phan correspondence, mostly from decent readers such as these (though unpleasantness readily endures when pandering to the base, seemingly unobserved). Recently, the conversion method of choice has been to recommend various band members’ solo excursions. As a friend remarked, it’s sort of a strange tactic; I can’t think of an instance where my fandom has taken that trajectory. But perhaps this is a unique case — after all, Phish is nothing if not unique.
Few will disagree that Phish exists, essentially, for live music connoisseurs, which makes them a hard sell for record geeks of a certain stripe. Over at Grantland (RIP), Steven Hyden made the best case I’ve seen for their relevancy outside the cult phaithful, as players in the greater scheme of rock’s future as a commercial art form. In the third-to-last paragraph of a piece detailing his slide into phandom, he envisions a possible future in which recorded music isn’t worth the financial investment, when critics “begin evaluating bands on their ability to perform and refresh their body of work,” rather than adjudicating the traditional discography. As I think Hyden well knows, resorting to a thought experiment pretty much gives the game away, at least in the here and now.
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With its bite-size approachability and unassuming professionalism, Paper Wheels might provide a better argument to help coax wary listeners toward the culty side of the aisle — or, anyway, it’s some kind of start. Take track number two, titled “The Song,” which gets its business done in just over three minutes and features vocals within five seconds of opening. But that’s too obvious. My favorite thing here is the closer, “Cartwheels,” justified in its ebullient circling by its lyrics (for once), celebrating the uncomplicated but mysterious pleasure of its topsy-turvy physical undertaking. As a final word, it’s an explanation for the group’s great following that I hadn’t much considered — maybe people are here for the cheerfulness, for a more bearable lightness of being.
But that’s the optimist view. By providing a shade of contrast, Anastasio’s bite-size slabs might end up reinforcing what you thought of the family-size version coming in — this is, unavoidably, a Phish-related project, and the roots are all the same. Phans will probably disagree entirely, which is their right, but I’m reminded of a recent Rob Harvilla piece making the under-appreciated point that easy-sounding songs are often the hardest to make; Paper Wheels is an argument for that, too. Anastasio does bring Steely Dan to mind in brief flashes as he chug-chugs his way through busy (by non-Phish standards) compositions, but their rough effects are barely distinguishable, especially in the album’s lower-mid-section. If you're looking for an album that reaches out and grabs you, look elsewhere.
Before that dead zone, the record’s strongest section takes hold with “Flying Machines,” “Invisible Knife” and “Lever Boy,” all of which just so happen to wrap up around the four-minute mark and feature recognizable verses, the occasional refrain and certain small pleasures — lovely backing vocals, for one. But even there, you’ve gotta live with the lyrics. “The calendar is an invisible knife,” he chants intently, hammering home one of the album’s basic themes: the endless march of time. Of course, you don’t actually feel his mortality, which would require setting aside the meditative musicianship or hinting at some thoughts on the phenomenon. All such earthly concerns, I suppose, he just cartwheels away.
In some respects, Paper Wheels is exactly what you expect from a solo project, in that it zooms in on a specific piece of a larger whole — you can get a sense of what Anastasio brings to Phish as an individual, and you might even hear a little Texas in him. The more you pay attention, the more you get out of it — to a point. It wouldn't surprise me if this was somebody's window into the Phish bowl. But it also ultimately shares the same flaws, and that album title isn’t helping. I can’t shake the image of a hamster, dutifully putting that wheel through its paces, round and round and round we go — gotta get in our exercise.