by Jason Hicks
Anyone familiar with the band Phish knows that they are primarily known for their improv heavy marathon live shows and their studio albums are somewhat of an afterthought in terms of their overall legacy. So for the dedicated Phish fan a new album isn't necessarily cause for celebration, but instead an opportunity to critique the shortcomings of yet another failed opportunity to fully capitalize on compositions that are destined to shine in the live format. Which isn't to say that all of their albums are bad, as some of them are quite good, but the band certainly has not produced an album that is an unqualified classic in the eyes of the music cognoscenti at large.
While their latest effort, titled simply Joy, may not be the career defining work that has thus far alluded them, it is their strongest entry in over a decade. To find an album that challenges it in terms of presenting the essence of the songs represented we have to go back at least to 1998's Story of the Ghost and perhaps even 1996's Billy Breathes, the latter of which is regarded by many to be one of their best. Granted the band has gone through not one but two hiatuses during that interval, so it may not be as impressive as it sounds, but guitarist and chief songwriter Trey Anastasio has always been prolific. So despite the breaks, Phish still managed to put out three proper albums between Ghost and Joy.
The time apart from one another looms large here, as Anastasio spent a good amount of that period in rehab following a DUI arrest in 2006. It's not hard to imagine what he's referring to when he sings "Got a blank space where my mind should be" in the bluesy rocker "Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan". Furthermore, when he says "Got a Clif Bar and some cold green tea" you can tell those words don't represent mere sustenance but instead are a metaphor for a man literally fighting for his life. Elsewhere when he intones "I didn't sleep once for four days and three nights/ I once didn't stop for seven red lights" on "Twenty Years Later" it's even more clear that the second chance that Joy represents, both for Phish and Anastasio's general well being, has not come easily. While lyrically Phish has for quite some time been moving away from the goofiness of early work like "David Bowie", whose only words are the titular British rocker's name along with "UB40", these songs represent the most personal and revealing Phish songs to date. Considering that the members are all well into their 40s at this point, a bit of maturity and gravitas in their music is not only welcome, but suits the band quite well.
Not that it's all doom and gloom, the album opener "Backwards Down the Number Line" is a bubbly tribute to the enduring friendship between Anastasio and longtime lyricist Tom Marshall that may be the catchiest pop song in the band's catalog. Bassist Mike Gordon contributes the typically quirky "Sugar Shack" that features an upbeat calypso/island feel fused to his country-ish vocal stylings. It also features a tastily in the pocket beat courtesy of drummer and band namesake Jon Fishman. Page McConnell gives his own cheeky take on the reunion with "I've Been Around", and alludes to a few troubles of his own "And the town threw down on me". Darker themes reemerge on the album's other blues rocker "Kill Devil Falls", which takes bit more of a boogie woogie tack than the straight ahead blues of "Stealing Time". The production throughout is fairly glossy, but not so much that it detracts from the overall aesthetic of the tunes, and some sheen is to be expected when employing producer Steve Lillywhite who made a name for himself working with the likes of U2 and Peter Gabriel in the '80s.
Then there's "Time Turns Elastic" which has been maligned by many of the band's hardcore fans, and with lines like "I'm a submarine" and "Melody, shelter in the darkness/ Take hold of me now!" it's hard not to cringe while enduring its 13 minutes of prog-rock excess. The outro verses and jam pack a punch, but unfortunately it's a case of too little too late as it takes over 10 minutes to get there. The song had its genesis as a piece for a full orchestra accompanied by Anastasio on guitar that was first performed before the band got back together. Apparently Lillywhite felt the album wouldn't have been complete without one of Anastasio's "epics" and so that led to it's inclusion, but it seems that it may have been better suited to have remained a part of his solo oeuvre.
That one misstep aside though, Joy is indeed evidence that not only Phish is back, but that they remain creatively vital. With a little luck Phish 3.0, as they have been dubbed by their tech savvy following, may just produce that masterwork album yet. You can stream the album from the band's myspace page here.