Phish Week – Day 1: Where to start with studio Phish


There’s no perfect place to start with Phish. Their studio albums are a mixed bag, and cover an impressively (distractingly, absurdly) wide range of styles and genres – quality, too. Their live shows, meanwhile, all feature rich ensemble improvisation, which is all about the moment of creative spontaneity rather than definitive performance, and in any case you could sample shows from 1986, 1994, 2000, and 2015 and walk away thinking you’ve just heard four different bands.

So here’s one fan’s guide to the band’s surprisingly large studio catalogue.

The albums

The White Tape: A mid-80s demo tape of absurdist joke tunes, found-sound collages, weird little solo miniatures, goofy frathouse funk, and early versions of songs (like ‘Slave to the Traffic Light’) that show the extraordinary range of bandleader Trey Anastasio’s compositional vision. Opaque for new listeners, but along with Junta it’s the skeleton key for understanding the band’s pre-1997 music.

Junta: A bolt from the blue, hugely underrated (when noticed at all) and still too weird for any pop/rock category. Opens with a pretty little comic throwaway…and then comes ‘You Enjoy Myself,’ the essential Phish song, first of several long tunes that integrate full-band improv into extended compositional structures. Half the tunes stretch past nine minutes – ‘Fluffhead’ is a daunting, Zappaesque 15-minute suite – but it’s all accessible music. Not a bad place to start. Fair warning, though: every one of these performances is superseded by later live performances, especially ‘Bowie’ and ‘YEM,’ which aren’t fully alive in the studio.

Lawn Boy: A quickie, recorded on studio time they won in a Battle of the Bands, and it sounds it. Relatively compact tracks showcasing the comic side of Anastasio’s writing, along with the band’s growing virtuosity – the latter was impressive from early on but by this point was hard for rock critics (who tend to resent virtuosos) to handle. Tunes like the scansion-impaired ‘Bathtub Gin’ and ‘Run Like an Antelope’ can try your (or my) patience with their silliness; they’re barely songs, though they always kill onstage. But ‘Split Open and Melt’ and especially the very Metheny-ish ‘Squirming Coil’ achieve something subtly complex. And ‘Reba,’ the longest track on the album by a big margin, contains the album’s most abstruse instrumental, its worst lyric, its most pleasurable lyric…and then, suddenly, one of the prettiest studio improvisations the band has ever recorded, a Lydian fantasy whose lead guitar line is a little too deliberate for the band’s stage show but which still attains a state of effortless elevation.

A Picture of Nectar: Sixteen tracks (none of them touching the nine-minute mark) aiming to demonstrate the band’s full range: the first half-dozen tracks cover berserker uptempo blues, delicate lullaby waltz, fist-pumping singalong duderock (w/nonsense lyrics about newts, hedgehogs, masked women in sacks, and a penile erector, though the latter was cleaned up(!?!?) for the album), a bluegrass tune about a tape recorder, Latinesque prog (with a hair-raising tension/release jam), and a notional vocalese Dizzy Gillespie ‘cover’ done for laughs. Tiring, incoherent, adolescent, and easily the most unhinged of Phish’s studio albums. Here’s what it’s like: one song rhymes the words ‘papyrus,’ ‘Osiris,’ and ‘recursive virus’ over a precise ersatz reggae beat – but then, just when it’s all too damned much, the band bursts into an effortlessly fluent fugue straight out of some second-year counterpoint class. Nectar is their jukebox album.

Rift: The full flowering of their early-90s aesthetic, at least w/r/t studio albums, featuring extended tunes that don’t stay too long (max length: 8:14) and attain, for the first time, a consistent emotional colour. The lyrics open up emotionally while staying gaga for extended metaphor, the music masterfully occupies a private idiom rather than borrowing other composers’ (or cultures’), and the whole thing’s a concept album about bad dreams to boot. For some reason Rift is poorly thought of, even by some fans. But just listen to the title track’s instrumental climax, the way the music’s breath seems to give out after Anastasio’s soaring crescendo; dig the ingenious structure of the ‘Maze’ jam’s key changes, if you’re not too busy head-banging, or the mathematical symmetry of both the music and lyrics to ‘It’s Ice,’ which in its perverse way actually rocks; and you’ll hear a band that’s fully integrated their inescapable intellectual ‘pretensions’ and their spirit of democratic generosity. (Bassist Mike Gordon’s contributions, ‘Weigh’ and ‘Mound,’ perfectly fit the album’s mood and preview his own growth into an excellent writer/bandleader.) One of my three favourite Phish albums. You might hate it.

Hoist: Their first and last attempt at making an album outside their home turf in the Northeast – this is their Hollywood album, and sounds like it. They even made a video, which the bassist directed. It turned out like you’d expect. You can practically hear the voice of Elektra Records saying FOR GOD’S SAKE YOU HIPPIE IDIOTS WE NEED A HIT, and in ‘Down with Disease’ and ‘Sample in a Jar’ we hear Anastasio/Marshall’s response: they’re two very very fine (even ingenious) pop-rock songs with lyrics you can’t imagine a 13-year-old girl singing at the mall, so they sank like stones on release. The rest of the album is less benignly mad than their usual, and if ‘If I Could’ (with the angel Allison Krauss) and ‘Lifeboy’ show the ballad work markedly improving, the discontinuity and gloss of Hoist work against it. Jonathan Frakes shows up to play trombone. As Nixon would say: ‘My God.’

A Live One: Man, I could write a book.

Billy Breathes: Producer Steve Lillywhite shows up wanting to make a ‘great stoner album,’ the new batch of songs (even Page McConnell’s Nawlins groove ‘Cars Trucks Buses’) has a wonderful bent-rusticana quality, the ‘Free’/‘Character Zero’ opening twofer is their strongest ever, and at some point they hit on the idea of blending the last 20ish minutes (including a couple minutes of bizarro group-improv experimentation) into a gorgeous little sleepytime medley, et voila, you have what’s probably their best studio album, though tellingly, there’s a bit of fan backlash since it contains just a single breakout ensemble jam. This album, along with their Halloween 1996 concert performance of Remain in Light, really kicks off the second half of their career, which is all about organically-evolving minimalism with deep groove, rather than guitar/piano interplay, as the foundation.

Story of the Ghost: Skeletons and sketches drawn from freewheeling studio improvisations, along with a handful of very strong Anastasio/Marshall tunes including the awesome ‘Limb by Limb’ and the mid-90s prog leftover ‘Guyute,’ their last real longform composition until 2009’s ‘Time Turns Elastic.’ The first studio appearance of Phish’s unexpectedly fluent late-90s ‘cow funk’ and rich ambient-textural work, which conceptually dominate their work for the next decade. Their most cohesive studio album, perfect for late-night drives.

The Siket Disc: Instrumental leftovers from the Ghost sessions. The closest they’ve come in the studio to the spontaneous magic of their deepest concert sets. Either you love its enveloping atmospheric sonics or you find the whole thing a little undercooked. Pair with Ghost for the fullest expression of Phish’s millennial sound; interesting chillout music if you’re throwing a party where drugs are featured.

Farmhouse: Half-baked, easygoing, worn out. There was some bad blood in the band at the time – Anastasio recorded much of the album on his own with guys from his solo band – and their creative exhaustion is obvious. The words ‘keep on drinking’ appear. The best track is the sweet electroacoustic chamber piece ‘Dirt.’ The worst is the static funk groove that manages, against all odds of taste or sense, to take up a quarter of the album over three songs. This where I stopped caring about Phish for a while, can you tell?

Round Room: More fully worked-out songs, thank God, including another sweetly winning bit of weirdness from Mike Gordon, but now we’re into their 2003-04 phase of narcotized textural envelopes. Not a good place for a new listener to start, since the baseline expertise level of totally unreflective of the band’s abilities when sober and cohesive. But plenty of fans enjoy this one.

The Victor Disc: An bunch of freewheeling studio jams from a wee-hours sessions right around their 2002-03 return. Perhaps the lowest pressure Phish on record. It’s not an album, and won’t convert any nonbelievers, but a number of fans appreciate its druggy casualness. I think it’s perfect background music, otherwise a bit boring.

Undermind: The folks at NPR liked this one, but Phish broke up right after doing it, and no surprise – frayed nerves, drug addiction, and the total collapse of their famous practice ethic had robbed them of their vitality. ‘Crowd Control’ is unintentionally(?) prophetic: ‘The world around me’s turning, I’m just standing still / The time has come for changes / Do something or I will.’ Weary, late music.

Joy: A return to vitality but not yet full power. Mike’s tune (‘Sugar Shack’) is one of his best yet and ‘Light’ is a soaring mission statement, but except for the surprising-for-Phish earnestness of the shared recovery narrative, this is a letter-high 85mph fastball, nothing more. ‘Time Turns Elastic’ is a 13-minute quartet arrangement of part of Anastasio’s half-hour orchestral piece, which they included at Lillywhite’s (perhaps misguided) insistence; it drew attention to the album and definitely shows off Anastasio’s range, but for all its proggy interest it wasn’t a hit with fans and has fallen out of Phish’s live repertoire altogether. Some critics call this ‘dad rock.’ That’s childish, but not entirely unjustified.

Party Time: Outtakes from Joy. Don’t worry about it.

Fuego: A personal triumph and a show of surprising strength from a group of 50-year-olds. As part of their 30th anniversary celebration, they went into Anastasio’s Barn studio with no plans and actually wrote lyrics while sitting together in a circle. Figuring (correctly) that they’re at their most creative while jamming, bassist Gordon brought in recordings of a bunch of onstage jams from the last few years (and a decades-old rehearsal tape) as foundations for songwriting. Trey and Tom contributed a couple of pop-rock numbers, Gordon and McConnell brought in very strong funk/soul-flavoured tunes, and producer Bob Ezrin gave the whole thing an old-fashioned sonic sheen. The resulting indie release is their best studio album since Billy Breathes, which the rock’n’roll geriatrics loved but which won’t win them any young listeners. Not that they care anymore.

– Wally Holland



7 thoughts on “Phish Week – Day 1: Where to start with studio Phish”

  1. Pingback: Quick hits, October 2016. | wax banks

  2. I applaud ending on an up note, but Fuego really isn’t very good, esp. compared to the new material debuted this summer.

    1. because i’m a socially awkward nerd i am not planning any such, but i’m happy to share a coffee and draw a weird picture on the title page of your copy if you like. 🙂

  3. nice read. which tracks are you referring to on Farmhouse that contain static funk? Also, while Trey wrote a bunch of those songs with his solo band, did he really record with them for this album as you say? Cant wait to read your book!

      1. yep — for a bit of ‘fun,’ grab a TAB show (from basically any era) and compare jams like sand, night speaks to a woman, money love and change, jibboo, drifting…it’s no coincidence that the band started to favour their most boring source material as they completely abandoned decades’ worth of practice-room habits…

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