It’s fitting that as I embark upon my first column about the mighty Phish, the band lands in the news here in Massachusetts.
Maybe you heard about it. At a recent show up here, the band brought out a man they introduced as Tom Hanks, the final punchline in a lengthy gag regarding their song “Wilson.” (You can probably figure it out.) Obviously, it wasn’t Tom Hanks, but rather a similar-looking relative of one of the band members, but the local media seized upon the story, touting Hanks’ appearance with typical celebrity-hungry fervor. The retractions the next day were funny, and it struck me that such a ruse is right out of the Frank Zappa Screw-With-Your-Audience Handbook.
I’m not sure what level of Phish fandom I can rightfully claim. As of this writing, I’ve never seen them live. I have all the albums, of course, and all of the officially released live recordings, but except for a few gifts from friends hooked up to the tape-trading circuit, I’ve never been into their bootleg network. And I’ve always admired them for what they took from Frank Zappa as opposed to what they got from the Grateful Dead, meaning I’m more into their arrangement and technical skills than their improvisation and sense of community.
Make no mistake, what Phish didn’t get from the Dead they got from Zappa – the jazz-rock tendencies, the nonsensical lyrics uttered in a low voice that dances all around the pitch, the prolific and diverse nature of their catalog. Which is the bigger influence is an argument for another time, but one that would certainly have its share of evidence on both sides. F’rinstance, Zappa played and recorded several songs from his 1984 rock opera Thing-Fish long before unveiling the whole thing. Likewise, Phish have Gamehendge, a lengthy and fantastical rock opera that they’ve never recorded, but have played pieces of in concert for as long as they’ve been a band. (“Wilson,” “AC/DC Bag” and “Punch You In the Eye,” to name a few.)
There is one thing, however, that they took from the Dead that elevates them above most bands playing today. It’s not the quality of the musicians – Zappa’s bands had some of the most technically amazing players you will ever be fortunate enough to hear, but they were lorded over by Frank himself, conducting and dictating the sound and style according to his own compositional ear. Plus, as Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio’s side project Oysterhead (with Primus’ Les Claypool and The Police’s Stewart Copeland) showed, you can put the best musicians together and still not achieve that spark that turns them into a band.
Phish is a band. In fact, they’ve often gone beyond band, playing like some 16-limbed, four-throated, 800-pound monstrosity. Like the core members of the Dead, the four Phish guys have spent so many years listening to each other play that they’ve turned it into a form of mind-meld. In their best moments, the four musicians not only anticipate what each other will do next, but challenge each other to reach further into new directions.
This bold exploration is fascinating if you’re a musician, but can be understandably tiresome if you’re not one. I think Phish recognizes this as well, which is why their studio and live outputs have been so different of late. Critics and fans have harped upon every release since Hoist for not capturing the sound of the band live, but that hasn’t been the point for many years. The last four studio releases have been small affairs, consisting of 12 or so short, melodic songs without much of the grand spectacle of the live shows. (Naturally, there’s the LivePhish series and the Hampton Comes Alive box set, which provide all the live spectacle one could need.)
Which is why Phish’s return to the studio is so surprising. The foursome took a two-year hiatus from touring and recording to pursue side projects, most of them fruitful – Anastasio had a solo album and tour, keyboardist Page McConnell led the jazzy Vida Blue, and bassist Mike Gordon recorded with guitar hero Leo Kottke. When they reconvened this summer to rehearse for their first tour since 2000, they liked their new material so much that they pressed the record button, and four days later emerged with Round Room, their new album.
What’s surprising is that Round Room seems to go against the philosophy of the recent studio direction. At 78 minutes, it’s their longest album since their debut, the epic Junta, and if it does nothing else, the album certainly captures the sound of Phish playing live. It all but shuns the finessed sheen of their last album, Farmhouse, in favor of rough edges and extended jams.
So why am I so disappointed with it? I suppose it’s because I’ve been spoiled by the LivePhish series, especially the recent round of Halloween shows (vols. 13-16). This series selectively showcases only the best nights of the Phish experience, and as any fan of improvisational live music can tell you, there’s never any guarantee that you’ll be seeing the band on one of their best nights. By recording Round Room live in four days, Phish rolled the dice, trusting that these four days would find them completely in tune with each other. As you may have guessed, they didn’t, at least not entirely.
There are four extended jams on Round Room, each approaching or breaking the 10-minute mark, and while I like them fine, I don’t consider them the best examples of what this band can do. Opener “Pebbles and Marbles” starts with a swing beat, then escalates masterfully over its 11 minutes to become the most successful of the longer tunes. Also excellent is “Walls of the Cave,” although neither of those songs has the spark of, for instance, the version of “Chalk Dust Torture” on LivePhish Vol. 2. Less successful is “Waves,” the pseudo-epic closer, which actually finds McConnell fumbling for notes.
It’s the remainder of the record, however, which could have used the most editing. As usual, the shorter numbers reach for simplicity, and often end up with banality. Of the shorter numbers, “Anything But Me” stands out as a winner. It’s soft and emotional, in the same vein as “Fast Enough for You” from Rift, still my favorite Phish record. Unfortunately, we also get drivel like “Mexican Cousin,” which I never have to hear again as long as I live.
Anastasio may not be the best singer on the planet, but he sounds like Jeff Buckley when compared with Gordon, who gets two songs all to himself. It doesn’t help that his round robin title track doesn’t really go anywhere after the first 30 seconds or so. But it hardly matters who’s singing some of these songs, since they weren’t given time to gestate beyond the sketch stage. “46 Days,” for example, made for a nifty three minutes on Saturday Night Live, but doesn’t really evolve beyond the repetitive chorus phrase (“46 days and the coal ran out”) and the one-chord stomp of the main riff.
I know I’m asking a lot of a bunch of songs that weren’t road-tested first, but Phish’s return should have been better than this. The best of the band’s live material starts in the stratosphere and gradually ascends into orbit. Most of Round Room never even gets off the ground. It would be an interesting experiment to hear the band re-record this album after bringing the songs out on tour to watch them grow up, but for now, the album is a mixed bag that feels too rushed and too rough. Much of Zappa’s later material suffered from the same maladies, and I hope Phish has enough sense not to emulate their hero that closely.
Next week, Prince, I hope.
See you in line Tuesday morning.