4 stars (out of 4)
Much has been made, in the days and weeks leading up to the release of Phish guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio's new solo album, "Traveler," of the fact that members of the National and Mates of State as well as of-the-moment producer Peter Katis worked on sessions for the record. The implication was that Anastasio was somehow looking to grab a "hipness" factor, and that "Traveler" would be a "Phish meets indie-rock" affair.
As it turns out, "Traveler" is in keeping with everything Anastasio has been doing all along finding new ways to fuse influences, to determinedly continue his search for the sound. Phish has never made the same album twice, and Anastasio hasn't repeated himself as a solo artist, either. "Traveler" has a unique production ethic, a distinctive sound that is not much like, say, his earlier "Horseshoe Curve," but then, Phish's "Undermind" doesn't sound anything like "A Picture of Nectar." Change and growth have long been Anastasio's watch-words.
What's striking about "Traveler" is the gorgeous density of the arrangements, the stacked harmonies and doubled unisons, the variety of instrumentation, the rich pastiche of variegated rhythms, and the manner in which Anastasio's voice and instantly identifiable guitar-playing tether all of this, not so much to the earth as to the wind. "Traveler" is trippy, but never self-consciously so. Its melodies are winning and inventive, and its presentation economical the songs evolve and relentlessly push toward an imagined destination, but there aren't any composed-on-the-spot Phish-style jams here.
"Frost" is an early winner, its achingly resonant vocal and Beatle-esque chord progression aided and abetted by a panorama of swirling sounds immaculately positioned within the mix strings, percussion, layered vocals and vibes. Add bassist Tony Markellis' supple walking bass and Russ Lawton's unobtrusive but astute drumming and this is an Anastasio masterpiece.
Playful Trey arrives in the form the prog-ska-dub burner "Land of Nod," a celebratory tune that moves from Zappa-like exuberance into an aching, "Billy Breathes"-ish coda, with Anastasio lamenting that he "was asleep for so long," while Katis once again applies the dense pastiche production ethic. Striking.
"Scabbard" is a finely detailed epic echoing, without reiterating, the sprawling beauty of Anastasio's high watermark composition "Time Becomes Elastic," which Phish delivered on its "Joy" album, and Anastasio later successfully reprised in an orchestral setting. A giddy, reggae-fied take on the Gorillaz's "Clint Eastwood" is a surprising but congruous addition, and flows nicely into "Architect," which might be accepted as the tune that provides the thematic center of "Traveler." Its lyric, like that of several others here, speaks of acceptance, of a desire to "reconvene and reconnect," and to simply make the most of the brief span of life you're granted.
"Traveler" might not satisfy hardcore Phish fans eager for lengthy jams, and it's doubtful Anastasio will achieve some sort of indie-rock crossover based on the album's release. Who cares? This is brave, often profound music, from composition to performance to production ethic. An open mind will welcome it, and an open heart will celebrate it.
Rating: 3 stars
Placido Domingo is still handsome at 72, and as a performer he seems to be getting better. He only began singing Wagner recently, and he is now tackling baritone as well as tenor roles. This kind of Eurotrash disc pairs him with such singers as Katherine Jenkins and Susan Boyle and Zaz. Domingo lends the disc elegance just by being who he is. He even gives dignity to "My Heart Will Go On," a duet with Megan Hilty. "Besame Mucho," "Time After Time" (with Harry Connick Jr.), "The Girl From Ipanema" they all seem bigger than they are.
Domingo pulls out the stops operatically in "Eternally," a song Charlie Chaplin wrote for "Limelight." It sounds like Victor Herbert, high praise in my book. "What a Wonderful World" pairs Domingo with Placido Domingo Jr., a fascinating kind of Mini-Me. "Parla piu piano," by the way, is really the theme from "The Godfather." I always remember how Al Martino, at the Hearthstone Manor years ago, referred to it as "that timeless romantic classic, the love theme from The Godfather.' " I had never thought of it that way, but Domingo can convince you.
Mary Kunz Goldman
The Best of Bond: 50 Years, 50 Tracks
[EMI, two discs]
Rating: 3 stars
Let us forever praise Carol Bayer-Sager. In the history of popular music in the English language, has anyone ever concocted a more wonderful lie than she did to music by the late great Marvin Hamlisch: "Nobody does it better / It makes me feel sad for the rest." You can pretend, if you insist, that it was just Carly Simon singing music for a James Bond film, "The Spy Who Loved Me," but, as a slyly hilarious offering to the most intimate ego of the Western Male, it was probably one of civilization's great moments.
Which is why it's long been one of my pet ideas that these periodic anthologies of all the music to James Bond films should turn into social events gatherings of all the nastiest and funniest "music nerds" you know to rate the James Bond film themes in order.
Bayer-Sager and Simon got the top nod from me, with No. 2 being Shirley Bassey's brassy and slightly crazed vibrato for "Goldfinger" but only because the song's climactic high note ("he loved GOLLLLLLDDDD!!!") can be downright migrainous if listened to more than once a week (at very most). Say what you want about Sheena Easton's "For Your Eyes Only" and Nancy Sinatra's "You Only Live Twice," but they're up there, too, even if not nearly on the level of Shirley, Carly and Paul McCartney and Wings' "Live and Let Die" (definitely No. 3 on my all-time Bond hit parade.)
In his 50th year, "Bond, James Bond" isn't merely the greatest money-maker in movie history, he's probably Britain's greatest national industry. Up next is "Skyfall," coming to theaters in early November.In the meantime, grab this for a James Bond hits party. You might want to pass up the second disc, though, because for every Moby remake of the Bond theme or Shirley Bassey offering to Pauline Kael book titles ("Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"), there's some immaterial suspense music by the estimable, sometimes even magical John Barry to keep you fearful and apocalyptic while the suspense is jacked up.