“These are not outtakes,” Steve Earle writes of the songs on his latest release, Sidetracks. “They are, rather, stray tracks, recorded at different times for different reasons that I am very proud of and are either unreleased or underexposed.”
With this statement, Earle preempts the mechanical response that comes to many a mind when presented with the dreaded B-side album: “If they weren’t good enough for your last few albums, why should we buy them all bundled together?” And for certain, there are a few tunes on Sidetracks that would have been best left in the dusty recording studio closet from whence they came. Earle covers Nirvana’s “Breed” and Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” much to the chagrin of fans of the originals. The idea behind a cover is to toss something new into the mix. Rather than adding anything new, however, Earle merely forges Cobain’s style and voice. The same goes for the Dylan number, and the result of these white-bread versions of otherwise kick-ass songs is just plain gross.
These debauched covers aside, though, Sidetracks is a delight. It’s the kind of music that can seduce our guilty delusions of grandeur. Whether you’re walking down the street with headphones pumping, driving in a car, or just sitting in your kitchen and looking out the window, Sidetracks can make you feel like you’re the protagonist in a vibrant movie. (Actually, many of the selections from the album were written for movies, either vibrant or otherwise, from The Rookie to The Horse Whisperer to Dead Man Walking.)
Lyrically, Earle croons rich, naturalistic stories, and the tales are worthy of attention. We meet with the thoughts of a death row guard on “Ellis Unit One” and a draft-dodger on “My Uncle.” “Me and the Eagle” describes a man’s relationship with the wilderness in tenderly passionate lines—“I’ve traveled around/I’ve seen city lights/But nothing shines like the Big Sky at night…When it’s all said and done/I usually find/Me and the eagle are of the same mind.”
With this amalgamation of B-sides, Earle offers an expansive canvas. From solitary trucker ballads to songs of hard-driving idealism, Sidetracks takes us from the valley to the mountains several times without our ever feeling that the climb is an arduous one. Trey Anastasio, Trey Anastasio (Elektra/Asylum Records)
When Phish broke up, the idea was that the band members would use the separation to experiment with different styles of music. This plan worked well for a while. Guitar virtuoso Trey Anastasio connected with rock ’n’ roll supergroup Oysterhead. Alongside Primus’ Les Claypool and former Police drummer Stewart Copeland, Anastasio co-wrote Oysterhead’s The Grand Pecking Order, arguably the most original mainstream rock record since Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Combine Anastasio’s Oysterhead days with Jon Fishman joining Pork Tornado and Page McConnell getting jazzy with Vida Blue, and it seemed as though Phish were following through with their new conceptual venture.
However, Anastasio’s latest, self-titled release is a retreat into the warm safety blanket of Phishy music. Tracks like “Cayman Review” and “Night Speaks to a Woman” echo the bouncy-crunchy guitar-driven riffs Phish is known for, which brings us to the question that became a cliché for a reason: Why fix what isn’t broken?
The answer lies in the fact that the members of Phish have always looked to their music as a progression. If they weren’t taking a step forward, they were doomed. So when Anastasio returns to the old familiar sound on his solo debut, there’s the feeling that his progression has stalled. This is especially true in light of Anastasio’s goal behind the project, which was, as he noted recently in a radio interview with WFUV in New York, “to use my style of music…modeled partly on a swing band philosophy, where there would be depth to the arrangements…like a tapestry of sound.”
When Anastasio actually realizes this goal, the album blooms. The brass quintet number, “At the Gazebo” and the orchestral “Ray Dawn Balloon” sparkle with the summertime luster of a sunset symphony. On these cuts, Anastasio becomes a true composer, utilizing woodwind, string and brass parts to build winding, harmonious melodies that take the listener for a surprise joyride. These compositions work because Trey shares the driver’s seat. When his guitar is subtler, it allows his 10-piece backing band (which includes the ever-astounding Dave “The Truth” Grippo on sax) to be a part of the whole.
Yet for most of the album, Trey wanders from his own idea of the “tapestry of sound,” making us painfully aware that we are listening to a self-titled release, and, as much as he may claim otherwise, that this is not a musical democracy. Anastasio’s wailing guitar has been walking the tightrope between genius and self-indulgence for years, and on this release it falls toward the latter, perhaps because he no longer has the censoring voices of Phish or Oysterhead in his ear. There was a clear balance of power with Phish, especially. No one member could issue the veto, and it showed in the equilibrium of the music. Now Anastasio is attempting to govern himself, and he is not yet accustomed to this role. It might be helpful for one of his new bandmates to get on his case, but you can surmise that it’s difficult to tell the conductor to tone it down a bit when he’s the one who hired you and the same one with the power to fire you.