In addition to the diversity of solo projects he’s enacted over the years, Phish’s Trey Anastasio can now to add to his resume composer and producer of an Original Broadway Cast Recording. His devotees as well as musiclovers curious about the man’s versatility may find Hands On A Hardbody more or less an essential entry in his discography, depending perhaps on what impact it may have on his main vocation.
Even given that Anastasio’s presence is the most obvious selling-point here, he’s certainly not prominent to a fault. Listed as one of the musicians, he may or may not be the author of the guitar solo within the Beatlesque chord progression “God Answered My Prayers:” it’s too truncated to tell. The play does provide Trey another chance, albeit a limited one, to work with arranger Don Hart, with whom he collaborated on Time Turns Elastic, and while there are only two cuts that feature orchestration here, “Alone with Me (Reprise),” with its sparse strings, supplies most effective contrast with steel guitars that appear on the titlesong and fiddle that seasons “Hunt with the Big Dogs.”
In terms of composition, the styles Anastasio was commissioned to compose, such as the country/folk as “If I Had This Truck,” are, to say the least, far removed from the likes of vintage Phish pieces such as “Flufhead.” Yet the acoustic-based “If She Don’t Sleep” isn’t altogether different, at least in structure, from the comparatively simpler construction of some of the group’s latter-day material, so there is some continuity there, at least in terms of furthering a more concise approach to songwriting. And while Green’s words, understandably, are designed in large part to further the storyline, the winsome tune of “Alone with Me” does sound like was it written as the means to the end of personal expression.
Wall Street Journal contributor Terry Teachout’s essay recounting the backstory of this play places its populist story in the context of the Broadway oeuvre at large, offering another perspective that may have enticed Trey Anastasio to expend the obvious time, effort and craftsmanship it took to write, record and partner in production with co-author Green on these twenty-one tracks (including a bonus cut, “The Tryers,” a cull from the stage presentation).
Still, as with any project undertaken outside the realm of the group in which an individual musician resides, the challenge inherent in objectively judging Hands On A Hard Body lies in divorcing the personality quotient from the equation to hear the music on its own terms. And on those terms, particularly given the play’s abbreviated run on the Great White Way, questions inevitably arise about how much attention the album might receive were Trey Anastasio not affiliated with it and whether his aficionados will listen to it more than a few times?