I am back from the AudioFeed Festival, and man, what a great time. It’s been a while since I’ve had a weekend this lovely. But listen. I’m sorry, but I’m not ready to tell you all about it yet. I’m still working on the AudioFeed post, in which I will review something like 10 new records and 20 live sets. These things take a while. Next week. Probably.
This week, let’s talk about the studio.
Many of my favorite artists use the studio the way it was meant to be used – as an instrument. Brian Wilson and George Martin were arguably the first to think of it that way, instead of as a room with microphones, and they came up with some of the most enduring studio creations in pop music history. Before the Beatles and Pet Sounds, studio albums were usually just live recordings without an audience. The psychedelic ‘60s changed all that, with Wilson, the Fab Four and Frank Zappa at the forefront. (Seriously, have you heard Lumpy Gravy? That thing came out in 1967.)
Since then, most of my favorite albums have used the studio as a musical instrument on par with guitars and drums. I’ve recently bought the new, definitive version of XTC’s Skylarking, one of only a handful of perfect albums I can name, and the band (along with producer Todd Rundgren) crafted this thing using all the tools at their disposal. It’s a labor of love – making an album this detailed is an intensive process, but worth it.
It’s no coincidence that only a few years before Skylarking, the members of XTC stopped touring. The Beatles did the same in 1966, just before embarking on their greatest run of studio albums. The artists making full use of the studio are the ones drawing a sharp distinction between their recordings and their live act. This is a risky proposition if you’re known for that live act, as the Grateful Dead were. No one would argue that their studio records are where it’s at, particularly their latter ones like Go to Heaven.
Similarly, Phish’s reputation lies with its live show. In many ways, there’s really no reason for them to keep making new records. They could tour for the rest of their lives, writing new songs and playing them for appreciative audiences, and never set foot in a studio again. So the fact that they keep doing it can only mean one thing – they like to. Granted, they’re not churning them out – it’s been five years since their reunion record, Joy – but these days, when Phish makes an album, they make an album. They’ve long made that distinction between the studio and the stage, and with their 12th record, Fuego, they’ve made it more emphatically than ever.
The story of Fuego actually begins last Halloween in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Phish has a Halloween tradition of covering an entire album, but this time, they decided to time travel, debuting the songs that would become Fuego instead. They then offered the show for download from their website. Fans pored over the jammy, stripped-back renditions of these new tunes for months before the album was officially released, so when they plunked down their cash for Fuego, they probably figured they knew how it would sound.
Surprise! Fuego is the glossiest, most layered Phish album ever, a pure studio creation. The band worked with Bob Ezrin, who has produced everyone from Pink Floyd to Peter Gabriel, and rarely left a record sounding raw and live. This album has horns, choirs of backing vocals, loads of different keyboard sounds for Page McConnell, vocal effects, and an overall sheen that practically reflects light. You won’t notice it right away, since this record actually opens with the live version of the epic title track recorded last Halloween (with backing vocal overdubs and general studio reworking). But beginning with track two, “The Line,” this becomes the most studio of Phish’s studio albums.
To be clear, this is never a bad thing. “The Line,” like most of this album, is marvelous. It may be the most successful of Phish’s forays into streamlined pop, in fact, with its eminently hummable chorus (complete with “ooh-ooh-oohs”) and its subtly splendid performance by McConnell on piano. If you think Phish can’t write coherent, concise songs, you should hear this. (And every album dating back to at least Billy Breathes.) The quartet locks into a shambling groove on “Devotion to a Dream,” which ends with a vintage Trey Anastasio guitar solo (and some gorgeous vocal layering) before McConnell’s “Halfway to the Moon” kicks in, all menacing chords and dark contours. McConnell shines on this one.
There are 10 songs on Fuego, and none of them are out-and-out clunkers. In fact, this album is a good example of how far they’ve come as a band of songwriters. They began as a prog-jam outfit, writing complex, winding odes and then stretching them to half an hour on stage. In the ‘90s, they embraced simplicity, and it’s taken them half a dozen records to evolve into the hybrid they’ve become. Their songs still aim for directness – there’s nothing complicated about “Sing Monica” – but they’re more sophisticated, more interesting, more apt to take fascinating little turns. Mike Gordon’s “555,” for instance, is the kind of loose funk tune Phish has been playing for 15 years, but it skirts around a neat chorus and some tasty horns.
“Waiting All Night” is the perfect example of the live/studio dichotomy. On stage, it’s a ramshackle bossa nova, complete with those not-quite-there harmonies the band specializes in. Anastasio is tasked with both keeping the strummy structure going and playing these swell ascending lines, and he can’t do both, and when his solo begins, the rest of the song kind of falls to pieces. But on Fuego, the song is smooth and lush, the harmonies perfect and soothing, the solo a splendid complement to everything else. It comes to life. All by itself, this song is proof that the more layered direction was the right one for these songs.
“Wombat” is the only almost-misfire, a short and silly nonsense ramble, but the studio version is a little marvel, intertwining vocal parts with Mike Gordon’s athletic bass lines and stings from the horn section. But those who know the Halloween show are going to miss Abe Vigoda’s presence here. Fuego rights itself at the end with “Wingsuit,” a simply masterful six-minute lullaby that builds up into a soaring ray of light. I like this one on stage, but it should sound like this, huge and full and open. When that final solo starts, it’s like flying. It’s simply great stuff, and the studio rendition gives it the weight it deserves.
Some might decry Fuego as too slick, too glossed up. But I think Phish is making a point here – even a band known for its live work understands that the studio is a different animal, and if you embrace it, you can accomplish things you simply can’t on stage. By delivering live versions of these songs first, Phish showed just how far a good studio treatment could take them. Some will like the live takes better, but for me, Fuego is one of this band’s finest efforts, and its rich sound is a big part of that. As I said, they don’t need to make records any more, but I’m glad they chose to make this one, and to make it this way.
See you in line Tuesday morning.