Phish, as every fan knows, is a live band. That is to say that you will never really "get" Phish until you've seen them perform. And even then you'll need to sample a dozen shows or more, just to get a sense of the different things they're capable of doing. Setlists change from night to night. Songs work their way into and out of rotation all the time. Special guests sit in, usually unannounced. And, of course, the songs are played differently every time. That's just one of the great things about following a jam-band: you will never hear the same song the same way twice.
It is for this reason that I am including two live Phish albums in this column. Normally I'd eschew live or rarities albums on the grounds that they aren't the best place to start. This is a special case, though, and I thought it helpful to touch upon the two most important live releases in their catalogue.
This list is mainly comprised of studio material. Even though Phish is best known for their live performances, and even though--yes--the studio stuff is commonly maligned by the ostensibly "hardcore" followers of the band, the album material is still pretty excellent. And I'm one of those very rare Phish fans who happened to discover the band through a studio album. As such, I feel I'm uniquely qualified to introduce the band in this format. After all, these simple, stripped-down, non-jammed-out, fully-predictable album versions are what eventually led me to fall in love with the band.
So, yes, the best thing to do to discover Phish is to go see a show. But since that is currently impossible (they are officially kaput for the foreseeable future), you've got plenty of time to dig into the studio stuff, and discover some really beautiful and rewarding progressive rock.
As much as Phish fans complain about the band's studio albums containing those dreaded "traditional" songs with verses and choruses, I think Junta is a pretty good argument against them trying for anything different. This album--originally cassette-only but now a double CD--contains several of the band's all-time most complicated masterpieces...and though they're all played expertly and impressively, they are comparatively flat and uninspiring. Held up against any given live performance of the same song, most of the Junta stuff is completely forgettable.
It's really just a case of the fact that the band plays so well off a live audience that it's impossible for them to play nearly as well in the studio. How can you blow away an audience that isn't there?
A few of the songs are beautiful enough on their own, though: Fluffhead is enormous fun (and rewardingly complex) whether on-stage or off, and The Divided Sky might not be nearly as mind-blowing as a good live version is...but it's lovely, and it earns its wings by virtue of being a genuinely moving piece of music even in its least impressive form. On the other end of the compositional spectrum, Contact is a simple, childlike, bouncy closer that definitely ends the album on a smile.
The other songs, such as Golgi Apparatus, Foam, and--obviously--You Enjoy Myself can't compare at all to the raging monsters they'd become on stage. Yes, all of these songs are impressive in their own way, but you'd be better off having someone make you a live mix-tape of the same songs in the same order. You'd be much more enriched by the listening experience, I promise you.
If I could take only one song with me to the moon: The Divided Sky
Lawn Boy (1990)
Oh Lawn Boy. Oh. Oh, Lawn Boy. What made you want to break my heart so?
I actually bought this album pretty late into my Phish fandom, and I really thought I was saving one of the best for last. After all, the track list reads like a rundown of the band's best songs. Bathtub Gin? Reba? Split Open and Melt? How could this album possibly go wrong?
Well, as with Junta before it, the band wasn't quite ready to acknowledge that certain songs are just too big for the studio. They were writing great music, but these performances are not going to win any converts. Unlike Junta, however, what we find here is less than charming. It's not a simmering promise of excellence to come; it's an assortment of limp disappointments. I apologize to anybody who disagrees with me on this...but I can't really budge. Even moreso than with the previous album, the songs just don't deserve to be associated with what they'd become on stage.
Why not one star then? Well, the final three songs come close to "saving" it. Run Like an Antelope is--for their first time on record!--a truly great studio jam. Again, it doesn't quite reach the heights of its live brethren, but it's at least a solid assurance of the band's abilities. That one is worth keeping. The title track is a fun little number that gives pianist Page McConnell the chance to do his best slimy lounge-singer. And the closer, Bouncing Around the Room, is a lovely studio tune that finds the band pulling together vocally in a way they could only sometimes manage. On stage, yeah, Bouncing was always a bit of a letdown. But no matter what anybody tells you--and they will happily tell you otherwise--it's still a beautiful song, and it leaves you on a higher note than the rest of the album might have suggested possible.
If I could take only one song with me to the moon: Bouncing Around the Room
A Picture of Nectar (1992)
Sometime before this album was recorded, the band must have realized that it was pointless to try to capture the energy of live performance in a studio. It wasn't working for them. Their enormous, towering jam vehicles became shivering little slugs when the audience was removed from the equation. They gave it some good effort, but, in the end, the songs that sounded best on record were the ones that didn't aspire to be jam of the year.
A Picture of Nectar marks their foray into recording, primarily, studio material. That is to say, these are songs that could now find a separate identity outside of live performance. The benefits of this decision can be felt immediately, as A Picture of Nectar is a much easier and more even listening experience than either album that preceded it. It's also the first album to feature at least one song written by each member of the band--something that would not happen again until Undermind, their final album.
The songs featured here range from chirpy instrumentals (The Landlady, Magilla) to eventual jam powerhouses (Stash, Tweezer) and bizarre one-off experiments (Catapult, Faht). The best stuff, however, are the songs beyond description. Where in the world would you begin when asked to describe Guelah Papyrus? It's vaguely Egyptian-sounding, and it seems to tell some sort of story about love, reincarnation and sailing, but it succeeds because it's so far beyond anybody's grasp. It sounds like a song Phish plucked from outer-space. It's brilliant, it's beautiful, and it's different. Ditto The Mango Song, which finds the band weaving around and through each other both musically and vocally, and which stands as one of Phish's most delightful studio gems.
The only real trouble with this album is its lack of cohesion. It's a lot of fun, but overall it reaches in too many different directions to provide one distinct experience. It sounds more like a collection of songs from five or six different albums they never recorded. By their next album, though, the band would bring central themes, concepts and directions to the fore.
If I could take only one song with me to the moon: The Mango Song
This is a difficult album to describe, and probably not a very good one for a newcomer to the band. Some fans believe it's their best. For a long time, I was pretty much convinced it was their worst. Time has been good to it, however, and I'm much more kindly disposed to it now than I'd have ever thought I could have been.
I think the problem is that its "concept" doesn't really work for me. Evidently the album is a sequence of related dreams as they are experienced by our central character, all of which relate, in some way, to the dissatisfaction he feels with his life. The result is an album that reaches a little further than it comfortably should, and the individual songs are hit and miss. My Friend, My Friend and It's Ice had their place on stage, but here they feel a little limp. All Things Reconsidered is a forgettable (and pointless) reworking of the theme from National Public Radio's All Things Considered. Sparkle is just annoying.
The best songs, surprisingly, are the love songs. For the first time on record Phish lyricist Tom Marshall invested some real emotional energy into his compositions, and it shows. Fast Enough For You is elegant and one of the best love songs I have ever heard (though whether or not "love" is its overriding emotion is debatable) and Silent in the Morning is a gorgeous, celebratory triumph to end the album. In between we have a great rocker in The Wedge and a dark country square-dance through Mound...but nothing else that really matches the quality of those two romantic endeavors. Rift is a good album that will really grow on you with time, but it probably isn't a good place to begin.
If I could take only one song with me to the moon: Fast Enough For You
This is the album that divided Phish fans down the middle...and will continue to do so as long as there are fans to be divided. An enormous portion of the band's fanbase found this album insulting. After all, they had followed Phish since they played in bars. This band was a word-of-mouth phenomenon. So what was the deal here? Why were they writing radio-friendly songs? Why were they so catchy? And--worst of all--why on Earth did they record a music video for MTV?
All of these questions conveniently skirted the most important issue: whether or not the album was any good. And the fact of the matter is, yes, the album is excellent. It might be a little unassuming, yeah, and maybe it doesn't exactly do much to challenge the popular music that certain hardcore fans believe it's necessary to belittle at every opportunity, but so what? It's 45 minutes of great rock and roll. Deal with it.
The misgivings fans originally had--though they may still hold tight to them--have been largely rendered irrelevant by the fact that Wolfman's Brother and Down With Disease both evolved into enormous jam-vehicles on stage...nobody could have predicted that. Songs that have grown up a bit less, like Sample in a Jar or Julius, are still enjoyable in their particular extended childhoods. But the best thing about this album is probably Lifeboy...an acoustic guitar and banjo song that features some of Marshall's best poetry and Trey Anastasio's most contemplative picking. It's obviously far too quiet to blow away anybody who's waiting for the next hour-long Tweezer, but it's one of the most beautiful songs the band ever got the chance to record.
Also, as if to apologize for the wimpy version of Split Open and Melt on the Lawn Boy album, we close here with Demand, a song of about a minute and a half long that features for its appended outro a powerful, thundering seven minutes or so from a raging Split Open jam. Deadly stuff, there, and the first officially-released live tidbit from the band.
If I could take only one song with me to the moon: Lifeboy
A Live One (1995)
Culled from many different shows performed the previous year, A Live One was Phish giving its most-devoted fans what they wanted more than anything else: a live one. They delivered a double album that somebody could play for the uninitiated. Something for new fans to grab first. And, of course, something to cement in music history some of the great jams that truly occur once in a lifetime.
Unfortunately, the result is a bit aimless, and it never really feels like the singular concert experience it expects itself to feel like. What's more, a few of the extended jams, such as You Enjoy Myself or Tweezer, are more likely to intimidate a new listener than ensnare him. They're both excellent performances, particularly You Enjoy Myself, but if you're trying to win over somebody who's spent his whole life listening to pop songs, or even classic rock, you're not going to do much more than bore them with those tracks.
More successful, from this viewpoint, are Slave to the Traffic Light which is elegant and majestic, The Squirming Coil which is gorgeous and closes the album with a genuinely touching extended piano solo, Stash which is raging rock and roll at its finest, and Harry Hood which begins as a bouncy sort of fun tune and ends up sweeping its listeners into the stratosphere by virtue of its long, swirling, powerful coda. These are all excellent songs (and perfectly-selected performances) but the heavier, less-accessible jams get in the way for a newcomer. Definitely worth purchasing down the line, but for starters, I'd recommend their other live album...which we will come to a little later.
If I could take only one song with me to the moon: Slave to the Traffic Light
Billy Breathes (1996)
From the most raucous album in the band's history to the quietest, Billy Breathes represents a side of Phish we hadn't seen much of before, and haven't seen much of since. It finds the band settling down into mainly-acoustic musings that owe more of their identity to their lyrics than ever before. Here, for once, the band members were playing singer-songwriters more than they were playing virtuoso musicians.
The music, while less complicated than ever, is gorgeous in its simplicity. (Check out the repeating-into-infinity figure of Bliss.) It's beautiful stuff from every angle, and it's probably the best place for a newcomer to start. These are the kinds of songs that will ease a new fan into the world of Phish. It's not just painless...it's pleasant.
The album kicks off with a pair of rockers (Free and Character Zero), both of which do little to set the tone of the contemplative record to follow, but...hey...they're great openers and they get the listener enthusiastic if nothing else. Before long we settle into the soft-volume rambles of Waste, Talk, Train Song and Prince Caspian, all of which work together in spirit but stand completely apart with their own strengths.
I'd definitely recommend this album first to somebody who has little or no experience with the band. It represents the best of their rocking ability, the most expressive of their vocal performance, and even offers a glimpse of compositional masterwork with the album's standout track, Theme From the Bottom. It's an expertly-crafted song that feels like it threatens to become an out-of-control jam-monster...and yet, through the years, it never did. Maybe the band realized that, for the first time, no live experimentation could ever top what they achieved in the studio.
If I could take only one song with me to the moon: Theme From the Bottom
Slip, Stitch & Pass (1997)
This time--in the second of Phish's "classic" live releases--we find all of the selections drawn from a single performance, and the cohesion shows. The same specific attitude of loose improvisation and humor permeates the entire product. It's great, and it's an excellent release from beginning to end. Very wisely, it duplicates none of the same songs from A Live One, and--even more wisely--it introduces fans to something else great about the band's live concerts: the cover songs. Sometimes played for humor, sometimes out of respect, and almost always bringing something unique to the performance, cover songs made up an important part of Phish's concert rotation. It's appropriate, then, that this album showcases them.
It opens with a smooth, groovy take on Talking Heads' Cities, blows us away two songs later with a bluesy but fiery rendition of ZZ Top's Jesus Just Left Chicago, quotes from two Doors tunes in Mike's Song and gives us a hugely satisfying rave-up of Rolling Stones' Can't You Hear Me Knocking at the end of Weekapaug Groove. These are all excellent selections and much more representative of an actual concert experience.
The Phish originals are just as impressive. Check out the stomping, satisfying march through Wolfman's Brother, or the upbeat piano-rock of Weekapaug Groove. Great stuff, and the ethereal, smoky Taste that closes the album gives you a real feeling of the energy this band can generate on any given night. It was a great tune on Billy Breathes, but this live version gives it a brand new direction and purpose, with thunderous success.
If I could take only one song with me to the moon: Taste
The Story of the Ghost (1998)
It's not quite the concept album the title suggests it might be, but The Story of the Ghost is probably their most cohesive to date. Everything about it, beginning with the dark and spacey imagery on the package, transports the listener into a very strange, very abstract musical realm. The band's innate playfulness is still on display, but it's a darker sort of comedy, and a more intellectual approach to linked imagery.
The one bad thing I can say about the album is that the songs are frustratingly short. Typically this isn't such a bad thing (the song Ghost is a more comfortable fit for the album in its truncated version than a half-hour-long live version could have been), but every so often you get the sense that you aren't getting the whole--intended pun to come...--story. If you catch Limb by Limb in concert you'll hear more lyrics and a longer, stronger musical conclusion. Roggae, tragically, loses here an entire beautiful 2/3 of its length. And The Moma Dance, one of my all-time favorite songs to dance embarrassingly to, is hardly even a shadow of what it was on stage.
Regardless, what's left is lovely, and the epic, sprawling, drunken Irish bash of Guyute fills at least some of the desire for extended musical passages. The songs, by and large, are lovely in their breathy looseness, and the lyrics are among the band's finest. Wading in the Velvet Sea, Roggae, Frankie Says... and The Moma Dance all represent lyrical achievements Phish wouldn't have been comfortable with just a few albums earlier.
This particular collection of songs is among the strongest Phish has ever produced, and one of the most satisfying to listen to in the dark.
If I could take only one song with me to the moon: Limb by Limb
Often written off (by very foolish people, exclusively) as a Trey Anastasio album with Phish as his backing band, Farmhouse and Hoist are equally threatening to fans because they don't actively challenge the audience's conception of What Music Is. Once again, they're missing the point.
The songs here aren't quite as earthy or meditative as the cover art might suggest, but its title track sets the appropriate mood. Even while Anastasio sings of loss and betrayal, the song is catchy, upbeat, and reassuring. Everything's gonna be alright. A few of the other songs (Heavy Things and the excellent Back on the Train) walk the same ground, but others strike out in unique directions. Sleep and The Inlaw Josie Wales are both gorgeous lullabies; First Tube is a thoroughly-rocking, head-banging explosion; Piper is a musical and lyrical spiral that escalates from soothing all the way up through mind-blowing, and Dirt is an R.E.M.-style stomp through reconsideration. All great stuff. At times they might not seem to fit together--and, hey, you might be right--but they are all still great songs, and the album makes for some very good listening.
The highlight? A lovely little tune called Bug that takes as its image a very small creature and uses it to explore some very large ideas. It also contains one of Anastasio's most under-appreciated guitar solos. It's the kind of song you'll set your own montage to, even before you hear it.
If I could take only one song with me to the moon: Bug
Round Room (2002)
And so much for the glory days. When Phish reunited after a two-year hiatus, expectations were high. Unfortunately, neither the album nor the live performances could live up to the hype. Doubly unfortunate, of course, was the fact that neither the album nor live performances were all that great anyway.
Round Room is a bit heavy on the ballads, and none of them are as accomplished as Fast Enough For You or If I Could were years ago. Instead we get a wimpy Anything But Me and a should-have-been-great-but-somehow-isn't-even-close All of These Dreams. The best of the slow songs is Friday, which is moving in its own way, but it's lost in a sea of too much syrup.
Faring better are the harder-rocking songs, such as the Rolling Stones-ish 46 Days, or the chilly jam-vehicle Seven Below. Sadly the album opens with the long, boring, self-important Pebbles and Marbles, which really does dampen the entire experience with the sense of a band that's trying too hard to recapture what it once had so easily.
The closer, Waves is the one glorious exception to Round Room's disappointing rule. It is easily Phish's strongest ever studio jam, and one of the most beautiful studio jams I have ever heard, anywhere, from anyone. The band plays off each other skillfully and emotionally, and it's both clever and complicated. What a shame it took them until the end of the album to reach this point.
If I could take only one song with me to the moon: Waves
And, yes, this great band--like so many others before them--ends their recording career on a wet fart. While a few of the songs (Army of One, Nothing) make the most of their playtime, all you can really hope for otherwise is some bouncy carelessness. At best we get The Connection or the title track. At worst we get the overanxious political commentary of Crowd Control...a song that so urgently had to be written that they couldn't devote time to making it any good.
What should have been the album's masterpiece--Scents and Subtle Sounds--was destroyed by the decision to split it in half, robbing it of its own momentum. Yes, the second section has a pretty great build-up, but it's only half a song, and it feels that way. Instead our only really good rocker is A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing, which even, in itself, is kind of confused. It feels like the demo of a much better song. You can feel what it's trying to do, but--all along--you're aware of how much it isn't doing.
This album also contains the absolute weakest composition in the entire Phish catalogue...the slow, boring, lyrically-and-musically-worthless Secret Smile. Ugh. That's also such an embarrassing title.
This album isn't one-star material (it's still Phish, after all...) but neither is it a must-buy. If you do buy it, burn Nothing, Army of One and A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing to a CD with a different, superior album. Those songs deserve some better company.
If I could take only one song with me to the moon: Nothing (That's the name of the song...not a wry comment on the album's quality.)