Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Untimely Reviews: Phish, "Fuego"

         
          Consuming music has gotten so weird. This is not an old-guy-hates-change rant, but I miss the effort and perhaps a bit of the difficulty of what it was like to experience music in middle school. Yes, I love iTunes, and yes, I think Pandora and Spotify are fantastic. So is Amazon. But when I was 12, 13, and 14 years old, acquiring music and then experiencing it was a serious, complex endeavor. Adulthood and technology have made it this whole other thing that -- for the most part -- grants immense access to the listener and makes it impossible to keep current. There was something about waiting until payday (or until I’d mowed enough lawns) and hopping on the 10-speed for a five-mile round trip to load up on cassette tapes.

            I mean, it wasn’t hard. But, I had to heave it up a few small hills and cross some busy streets and ride home with my merch’ swinging in a plastic bag, banging against the handlebars. And then I’d sit down.

            After all of that huffing and sweat and the awkward transition, multi-tasking -- once I was home and through the plastic wrap -- was the farthest thing from my mind. It was all about spending time with the albums, the undivided attention, the listening and studying, the melancholy of knowing I could not transport to the studio where that album was born.


            Don’t get me wrong: I love clicking a link and syncing my iPod. Online music sites make it so I can sit at the computer and listen to endless favorites and new interests, all courtesy of tailored lists of songs, streamlined for and by me. And who doesn’t love getting packages? Rarely is there a better day than coming home to a new book or CD wedged -- with a handsome little label -- in the storm door. Hell, even driving to a retail outlet and popping the disc in your car player is awesome, but it takes that old, you-should-have-to-earn-it curmudgeonry out of the experience.

            It doesn’t matter. Time is a rare commodity and I invest zero of mine in keeping tabs on what’s happening in the world of music. But you’re not going to squeeze a Phish album past me. Not again -- I’m looking at you Round Room and Undermind -- anyway. Social media has made that certain, and for that I’m thankful. Dunno what I was doing in September 2009 (Editor’s Note: Besides working on the 25/25 project that would cause me to not write a review about Joy, their last studio release, but for whatever reason I didn’t.

            Either way, I can’t not write one about Fuego.


            My first thought about it goes back to the spring of 2012 when summer tour was announced. We were going to take a stab at a family trip to see a couple of shows and in my typical effort of voicing my platform for justifying spending the money on such an event, I mentioned that I’d heard the band wouldn’t be touring as much in 2013 because they would be both busy with family and -- at some point in the fall -- recording at The Barn. So we had to go.

          I was excited. I mean, I’ve never not been excited about a Phish album, but I always take special pride in getting pumped for it in that I like to take one for the team for all of the studio haters/ignorers out there. I’ve also never had near that much lead time to think about it. If you put any stock in wavelengths and sharing some fragment of mental energy with other beings in the universe, then it’s a cool idea. Like, the possibility that I could be thinking about Phish going into the studio at the same time any of the four band members could be thinking about Phish going into the studio. Or that, I could be curious about their recording project at the same time they’re working on it and maybe wondering how the track they just laid down might sound to a fan, how it might make him or her feel.

            Anyway, two years is a long time.

            Sort of.

            Okay. Not really, but for this thought cloud it is.

            So most of 24 months go by and we’re -- accurate or otherwise -- in this thing together. The curiosity, the wondering, the creative-output mode. There was of course the Halloween performance, where the whole thing was quote/unquote debuted. I’m talking about crisp, clean, mixed-and-produced releases, though. Anyway, news of the album -- as album news is wont to do -- was everywhere. I mean, for the last three weeks I couldn’t swing a dead cat near my Twitter feed without hitting a few Fuego tweets. And hell, I first listened to “Waiting All Night” like two months ago. This, as they say, made for a heavy dose of expectation.

            I was the first to nab a copy up at Best Buy on Flintlock Road up in Liberty last Tuesday morning, but I can’t imagine too many folks were flocking to that store (or any other) for a copy of the new Phish record. And, yes: I took the cellophane off in the store just so I could throw it in their trash can, and yes: I popped that sucker in my player and got on the highway. I’ve given it my required three listens, and I’ve given my favorites an extra six or eight runs.

            But I’m still not sure where I sit with it.

            It’s -- like any Phish album -- different than anything they’ve ever done. And I’m used to liking that on somewhat of a high-90s-percent spectrum. Fuego, however, could be different. I mean, it’s early, still, and this kid needs a ton more at bats before you can decide if he’s big-league material. I just can’t say that that’s ever been the case. They tend to drop records and I tend to love them with immediacy.

            Hoist is one of two exceptions. I got into Phish right around the time Rift was released and had the rest of the discography memorized by the time its successor hit stores. I didn’t know what to do with it. I mean, they did a whole bunch of wild stuff with Hoist, like bringing in horns for the opening track, making a video for the second, recording with Allison Krauss for the third. They went out to leftfield for a pair of tracks, swung things the opposite direction for the close of side A, hit back-to-back-to-back home runs, then weirded out again to close the record. What’s more: I don’t care who you are, you ain’t ever trumping Rift. Not then. Not now; not ever. I mean, you might one day write and record a better album than your Rift, but it won’t be the one you put out right after it.

            The point is that it took me a long time to recognize the value -- and there is a ton -- of Hoist. I’m still working on Round Room. I thought for a long stretch that it was kind of a shitty record, and it may well be their weakest. I’ve come a long way with it, though. A long way. I think that part of the problem is my personal association with the album itself and what was happening with the band at the time. So who knows. It also took me a while to love Lawn Boy and A Picture of Nectar. I always gave them equal play, but I could have been sated with just Rift and Junta.

            Anyway, I should get to the tracks.

“Fuego”

            This is kinda/sorta the third time in 12 albums that they’ve led off with the title track, whatever that’s worth. I think it takes all of 25 seconds to be as all over the place in this song as they were for Hoist in its entirety. And then they do more. And I’m sitting there, in my car with this record in my ears, feeling as though I’m not going to like it. And this…this is a problem. A huge one. A Houston one, even. Why? Well, because I’m sensitive. I love Phish. I have loved Phish for over 20 years. I have, for over 20 years, felt that they are the best outfit on the market and that nothing’s even been close. I would listen to arguments for Radiohead and Pearl Jam, but it would be tough because I haven’t given those artists the time I’ve given Phish. And frankly, those making that argument would be wrong.

            But there have always been haters and I’ve always let them get under my skin. I don’t -- for two seconds -- think that the Phish experience would be cooler than it is if everybody loved Phish. It would be a shit show, and believe me: It’s already enough of one on its own. It’s hard to get out of my head and heart, though, and I want people to experience the connectedness, the brilliant levels of talent and showcased musicianship. It’s so much easier (it turns out) to crank out nasty criticisms (founded or otherwise) on the Internet. But the haters whine about the lengthy jams. They claim the lyrics are silly. Or they just say, “Phish sucks.”

            Trust me: I’ve been at shows where a jam or two is too long. Then. For me. I’ve been inside plenty more, though, where I didn’t want them to end. The lyrics haven’t always been Aristotelian, but they’ve always meant something, even if said meaning varies from fan to fan. I guess what it boils down to is this: Phish has never made two albums that resemble one another and -- more often than not -- they seldom even tread the same studio waters. So if you’re Mr. Delicate Stand Up for the Band Guy, it takes a healthy chunk of work to get your head around an album. It takes time and repetition and different kinds of emotions present while listening to their records.

            There’s that and that I consume a ton of material about the band. I know that the song-writing experience was very different for the foursome this time around. I know that there was a particular exercise used at one time or another and the transparency of that particular exercise is visible, right here in the first 115 seconds of the album. It makes for this situation wherein abstractions are all coming through one piece of glass and projecting a kaleidoscope of imagery on the wall. Depending on where you stand, what you see is different. Depending on who you are, what you hear is different. Things seemed so much more concrete before. Not with “Fuego.”

            This lead track shatters my image of what I thought things looked like behind closed doors. It’s like I had them “figured out” and when I got a peek through the studio window, they were writing a song that mocked what I thought my very understanding to be. Either that or I know too much; I can’t listen to it with objectivity. All that aside, these guys are at the top of their 31-year game and have bottled their ability to shred. I challenge you to crank the 2:15-4:15 marks of “Fuego.” It’s as if they body jumped into Weezer, created a 120-second fuel-filled vacuum, injected combustion, then leapt out, leaving the place ablaze.

            They reappear headed into the five-minute mark and explode again. I mean, these guys are sharp and if I may marry a pair of clichés: Blink and you’ll be left in the dust.

            In true-to-Phish style, they expose themselves for what could be called lyrical silliness:

“I asked Diego if it was stolen,
Inside your fuego we keep it rollin’.”

            I don’t have any idea what the hell they’re talking about it, but it sounds to me like they’re inviting speculation about song-writing ability while blowin’ the God-damn doors off of the joint in which they have just written a song. I’ll say two more things about this cut: a) When there’s three and-a-half minutes left in it, they tear up the place; b) Drummer Jon Fishman has always been my Least Valuable Player in this outfit, but he has his moments. Phish’s 12th album’s title track is one of them.

“The Line”

            This track was the second one made available before the album was released and it has to do with more than just a college freshman missing some key free throws in a big game. It’s about how that experience is a microcosm for human identity and what you can make of moments that wind up dubbed as big. Keyboardist Page McConnell’s work on this track is beautiful (as usual), but aside from the lyrical message, there isn’t much to the tune. I do love when the band members have a sizable presence in terms of backup vocals, which is the case here. It’s a pretty blasé (Again: Aside from McConnell.) number. The theme, however, is very 2014 America, and that counts for something.

“Devotion to a Dream”

            Track three takes me back to a sort of late-‘90s Phish feel, which tends to be a good thing. I thought I would have a problem with this cut as, at first, the rhythm reminded me of “Back on the Train,” which I’ve heard and seen live more times than I care to acknowledge. Early strong point: The backing vocals put up by the band are even stronger than the previous track. Not only are they singing more than “Oooo,” they’ve embedded the refrain behind the tail end of the verse, which is fresh. In terms of the music, McConnell’s work is again the highlight. I wonder how many times over the years I’ve pondered where this outfit might have landed had Jeff Holdsworth never found God.

After my first few listens, I thought I’d either dismiss this track or have a beef with it. I couldn’t decide if it was doing anything for me. When I dug a little deeper, I found that it’s the first (of only three) penned by lead guitarist Trey Anastasio and longtime writing partner Tom Marshall, who is nothing shy of my lyrical idol. Having learned that, the lines in the piece made me skeptical; they convey some good warm and fuzzies but they felt very un-Marshall. He’s usually wicked abstract with his words and the reading between the lines is what’s so good, so goose fleshy for the listener. These lines seemed too direct. Then I realized that I was only listening to them while driving, which is to say that I wasn’t really hearing them.

When I sat down at my desk with the album, I realized what I was missing, which was the story behind the words of this regular-feeling, pop-sounding piece. That story has everything to do with everything that most every person on this planet seeks and needs: relationships. That story has everything to do with the idea of finding what appears to be a solid, for-the-long-haul relationship, only to discover -- somewhere down the road -- that it will not work. That story has everything to do with the energy invested, the facades constructed, and the charades carried out to make it seem like it would work. And that story has everything to do with the liberation from such a falsehood, such a pattern of illusions. That story has everything to do with something that has always been the case: Tom Marshall has a gift and it is exposed through the music of Phish.

“Halfway to the Moon”

            This was the only tune I knew when I saw the list of tracks that would be on the new album. Truth be told: I was bummed. I’d hoped for something like “Steam” or an oldie that had never made the cut. “Halfway to the Moon” is the only song on the album credited as McConnell-only material, and truth be told: Vida Blue has been the least inspirational of the three major side projects upon which the band’s members have ventured. Fishman has dabbled, but the Trey Anastasio Band and Mike Gordon are the top two (in that order) in terms of touring and releasing records. In essence, McConnell material is a rarity when it comes to making the Phish grade. I’ve seen the band do this number live twice at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado. The first time was early in the first set of the three-night run’s show closer; their first of three (soon to be four) straight years doing Labor Day Weekend at Dick’s. They would do it again two years later. Both times I dug it, but it didn’t do anything extraordinary for me. The first time it followed Phish’s debut of Gillian Welch’s “The Way That It Goes,” which blew my flip flops off of my feet, so I was still coming down from that high when they rolled into it. The second time I was with pregnant wife and daughter, so I don’t recall much about the show in general. Still, I knew the tune well enough to recognize it, and when I saw it listed as the only familiar bit from the new album, I was less than impressed.

            My tune has changed.

            Much has been made of Bob Ezrin getting the producer call for this record, and I reckon that if you’ve worked on records with Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, and Pink Floyd, such acclaim is warranted. I’m not certain if it’s Ezrin, McConnell, Phish, or all of the above that get credit for the finished product of this track in particular, but it will send you -- Yes, I’m going there -- halfway to the moon. It’s a lock for top three tracks on the album, and makes a strong case for best overall. Here. Give it a listen:


          If you’ve spent any time watching Phish perform, you might agree that Fishman looks bored a lot of the time. I don’t expect he possesses the talent to get all John Bonham on the kit, but maybe he does. Either way, he sounds -- for reasons I cannot explain -- appropriately busy on this track. Really, though: That has little to do with what I want to say about this track, save for the fact that there’s something in how it was crafted that better uses Fishman’s ability than a lot of this band’s songs tend to do.

            If you’ve read anything I’ve written about Phish -- or if you know me or have been to a show with me -- you might know that I’m a huge Page McConnell fan. I remember seeing a fan movement some time ago that became acronyzed as P.L.M. (People for a Louder Mike), which -- I must admit -- was warranted. Anastasio has always been Anastasio, but McConnell has always been the quiet hero. In fact, part of how I felt when Hoist came out was attributed to something Trey said just before Phish covered “Loving Cup” by The Rolling Stones one summer at Red Rocks Amphitheatre:

          “Page said he’d never do this song again unless we got him a baby grand. Well, we got him a baby grand, so…”

            McConnell is the best pianist in show business and has been for years. He deserves -- if he wants to have a baby grand piano on stage -- to have a baby grand piano on stage. He sounds magnificent on it, especially if they’re going to close first set with “The Squirming Coil.” The trouble is that you can’t mic a baby grand like you can amplify a keyboard and it was on the keyboard that he was doing all of his rolling, high-tempo fancy shit in the early ‘90s; namely: the Rift era. Dude was murdering it. His keyboard solos set crowds on uncrashable waves. Shit was baked to perfection.

            Anyway, Anastasio has always been the leader. He writes the most, he sings the most, he conducts every set of every show, and his instrument -- and I argue this to be a flaw -- has always been the most audible. What has been has been, and “Halfway to the Moon” is a perfect example of what a L.P.P. (Louder Page Phish) might sound like. Namely, it’s McConnell tearing up the ivories, belting his lungs out, and leading the pace, the rhythm, and the jam. In all, it makes for a magical composition, and like I said -- I have no idea what this (or any other track) sounded like before Ezrin got there, but I gotta believe he gets some final-product kudos on this one.

            The backing vocals, for example, sprinkle alchemy over the introspective lyrics

“I found a place that I can’t explain,
In my state of my mind,
I move myself as I search the stone,
For any lines to unwind”

in a fashion that reeks of Dark Side of the Moon and carries 10 times the musical prowess than Floyd was ever capable of exhibiting, even in their finest hours. McConnell displays, in this song, a melodic leadership that sets him in the track -- and the track on the album -- out in front. And for that he should be commended. Knowing the complexity (at least in appearance) of his rig, it’s stunning what he’s able to accomplish as a part-time vocalist, not to mention in a lead sense.

“Winterqueen”

            The second Anastasio/Marshall-penned number on the record would resemble a quaint sequel to “Time Turns Elastic” had the same duo written the marathon from Joy. The theory works on a thematic level, though, and captures that which makes Marshall’s gift special. Anastasio’s friend/scribe displays the ability to personify natural elements, to take snapshots of human-thought morsels and project them into the fleshed-out ideas our busy minds tend to prohibit. The notion of track listing on albums has always fascinated me, and this instance is a perfect example: You don’t omit a 4:21 gem like “Winterqueen” and sandwiched between the journey of the previous song and the upbeat number that follows is its ideal spot.

“Sing Monica”

            The duo follows up their earthy introspection with another take on relationships and perhaps the distance needed to gain perspective once one has ended. This track has potential for fun in the live venue, and serves as a nice segue to a piece by another duo.

“555”

            A few years ago, when the wife and I caught Mike Gordon at The Bottleneck in Lawrence, I didn’t know what to expect. In fact, I anticipated a bit of boredom. To call the evening a pleasant surprise would be a disservice. Gordon has not done a ton of song writing with Phish, but when one of his numbers makes the rotation or lands on an album, they’re almost always bursting with the fun energy that the bassist possesses (and just as often hides). Scott Murawski plays the six-string in Gordon’s side project, and together, they deliver the seventh track from Fuego. It does not disappoint.

            Seconds in it’s clear that Gordon is this number’s author and the three other band members are quick to drop signature sounds. Another rarity in Phish recording is the use of Fishman as a key background vocal. It serves a certain purpose of some serious/amusement blend and “555” is no exception. When Gordon writes a song, it’s typical for him to wind up manning the lead vocals on it and, truth be told, he has the best pipes in the band. This leaves the listener split; you want him to sing more songs than he does, but at the same time it makes the few he does deliver a higher form of refreshment.

            This cut has it all: female backers, sneaky McConnell keyboard bursts, horns, that swamp feel of Gordon tracks, the almost-removed sound of Fishman’s voice that makes it seem as though he’s off set, a shredding blues feel, and an overall spy-type theme to the music. I’m not sure to what “555” refers, but my guess is a train line. It’s got essential build, momentum, and a torrent that makes me picture a runaway locomotive, especially one the black-and-white birds from Mad magazine might try to hijack from one another.

“Waiting All Night”

            With track eight we get back into the fold of compositions written by all four band members. This was the first cut released from the album and it’s a smash. The only way I know to describe the musical layering of this piece is to mention postmodernity. It’s as if the curtain’s pulled back and we see the protagonist in a spot. We’re unsure of how the lead character got there or what might happen next, but we’re invested -- with immediacy -- in his/her resolution. As if that start wasn’t mysterious enough, we get more Fishman vocals, only this time as the lead. At least for the start.

          I’m not sure if Phish went into the studio with the idea of broadcasting human emotion, but they’ve managed to do so on an astonishing level in a few of these tracks, “Waiting All Night” taking the clear-cut lead of that race. As we watch our protagonist tread foreign water for most of a minute, the band rewards us with a lyrical layering that illuminates the lonesome spot in which -- you guessed it -- folks in relationships sometimes find themselves stuck. Just as we think we’re clear, the band throws us a curve ball in the form of one Gordon-sung line, which couples as the most-refined piece of singing on the album, and the point at which we see a glimpse of resolution. Anastasio’s quick to usurp the vocal throne -- mid-line, no less -- but for this fee we are rewarded with the first of several Gordon “meatballs” as fans have coined his fuzzy, outer-space bass bombs.

            The compensation, however, is brief. The return to our protagonist is direct, and few are the signs of diminished pain. The bed of this piece is both tranquil and venturing, while the lyrics carry our hero from the sea’s depths to a safer tributary of stability where, clung to a shore boulder, he/she can do little more but release the anguish and pray for clarity. Fans of the band’s live gigs are certain to label this song as bathroom-break material, which is understood. The problem with that trend, however, is that many that do so are also of the tendency to dismiss the outfit’s studio efforts, and in this case, “Waiting All Night” might be Phish’s finest on the record.

“Wombat”
            
            Your copy of Fuego -- like mine -- comes with 10 tracks, but for my money, it’s over after eight. This ninth selection serves no purpose, save the bizarre. It’s akin to “Riker’s Mailbox” from Hoist. I heard Ezrin was quick to hack the band’s list of some 40 songs to 12. How this one made the cut is beyond me. Sure. There’s some cute experimentation in there, some nice backing vocals and some tight horns, but I’d just as soon have something else in its place.

“Wingsuit”

            This one might grow on me. I don’t hate it, but there’s so much value in what the band has done on the album to this point that I’m stuck in skip-it mode for the time being. There’s a nice spot with an absence of sound that picks back up with an Anastasio lead riff and appears to channel a little of that Ezrin-y Floyd feel. It’s tough to make it through it, though. I’d just as soon get back to “Halfway to the Moon,” “555,” and “Waiting All Night.”

            It’s tough to write an album review when the Internet provides such an abundance of information about it before it’s available. It was so different when you purchased the album the day it dropped. The thing was like seeing your lover naked for the first time; so much to absorb. It’s also a challenge to write a review of an album by your favorite band, especially when you’ve loved most everything they’ve ever recorded. Toughest of all is when that band tends to reinvent the album every time they hole up in the studio.

          Pumping Phish serves zero purpose. I don’t need any more people to buy tickets to see them live; I’m too old to tolerate crowds as it is. They don’t need people to buy their records. They have enough money that they’ve gotten to the point where they probably don’t think about money anymore, and I’d imagine they’ve been in that spot for some time. This is an exercise in the criticism of creative composition, and I’ve tried to do just that. If you’re serious about music, Fuego belongs on your shelf. Anything less (as they said in those obnoxious old deodorant commercials) would be uncivilized.