Phish: Joy

By: Cal Roach

When making albums, Phish has a lot more to live down than to live up to. Increasingly since 1998's The Story Of The Ghost, Trey Anastasio's songs have largely functioned as launchpads for jams rather than as standalone creations. Also, Phish has this pesky reputation for frivolity, particularly Tom Marshall's lyrics, which he historically pads with non sequiturs and inside jokes. This makes much of the band's catalog unlikely to resonate emotionally except through a shared history between fan and band. Joy (arriving September 8 on Jemp Records) defies these expectations, retaining the unshakeable essence of Phish but rejecting the density of the band's mythology in favor of broader matters of the heart and soul.

This is at once Phish's most personal and most universally accessible album, and it's just light enough on the cheese to carry significant weight. Opening track "Backwards Down The Number Line" (a lyrical birthday present to Trey from Tom) is overflowing with the gratitude that comes from surviving intimate hardship, and this theme persists throughout the ten tracks like a 12-step mantra. "Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan," "Joy," "Kill Devil Falls" and "Light" all radiate a defiant emergence from confusion, and even Page McConnell's "I Been Around" is a lighthearted reflection on past indiscretions. The shadow of Phish's well-publicized drug problems blankets the album, but a sense of hope is even more palpable.

Steve Lillywhite brings a crispness and sheen that was absent from Phish's two previous post-hiatus albums, and Joy is easily the most radio-friendly record the group has released since its last collaboration with Lillywhite, 1996's Billy Breathes. The warm production enhances most songs, but towards the end of the album, the levity gets a little stifling. "KDF" (essentially a forty-something update of "Chalk Dust Torture") lacks the edge it craves, the middle section of the epic "Time Turns Elastic" could use some darker atmosphere to deepen the imagery, and "Twenty Years Later" never reaches any real crescendo, which it clearly is aiming for. Just because it's a record doesn't mean you can't jam a little bit, guys. Its ending is like a limp attempt at "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," except with singing that's so buried in the mix it sounds half-baked.

The shorter songs generally reflect the increased focus on vocals and concise, riff-based songwriting of Anastasio's solo work, and many of them could have been highlights on 2005's Shine or 2006's Bar 17. There's no mistaking the renewed vigor of a man getting his band back together, though, and it's to Trey's credit that he's not looking through the cracked lens of nostalgia for some forced inspiration. Only "Ocelot" really sounds like a throwback, while "STFTFP" (with its rallying cry of "Got a blank space where my mind should be") and "Light" (featuring some of the most uplifting Phish vocal arrangements ever) are as good as anything Trey and Tom have written this millennium. And Mike Gordon's "Sugar Shack" ranks up with any of his quirky contributions to the canon.

And then there's "TTE." Debuted as an orchestral work last year, the 13-minute Phish version is pure Yes-style prog, an easy target for criticism. Vocals have always been the band's Achilles' heel, and while the quaver and strain in Anastasio's unadorned vocals on "Joy" ultimately bolster that song's impact rather than undermine it, his lack of control sabotages some portions of "TTE." There are a few slow instrumental passages that could have been enhanced by more dynamic production. But the intricate playing by everybody, plus rich harmonies and some visceral guitar work in the final movement, make the journey worthwhile, even thrilling. The band can't reproduce many of the subtleties live, so this is one of the few songs in their catalog that works better on record. But, its placement within the album is all wrong.

In arranging this album, Phish somehow forgot its bread and butter - the segue. With such a strong crop of songs, it's a shame that the running order is so haphazard. The oddball "Sugar Shack" makes no sense following the heartfelt title track. "Ocelot" is a pointless mood disrupter right in the middle of the record. The ethereal intro to "Light" could have faded seamlessly in from somewhere, but it feels out of place following the classic-rock blast of "KDF," and following it up with two minutes of filler ("IBA") makes the last two songs seem bloated and tacked on. While "TTE" works well as a set closer live, the non-jammed ending makes the penultimate track feel totally unresolved, and "TYL" functions as a feeble coda, serving as more of an ellipsis than an exclamation point. Still, even if you can't quite surrender to the flow of Joy, it's a crazy quilt of songs that will excite old fans and probably hook new ones.

JamBase | Stretched
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[Published on: 9/5/09]

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