Friday, July 25, 2014

Phish: Fuego Album Review

Written by: Frank DeVita

Date: July 25th, 2014

Depending on who you ask, Phish is legendary, infamous, or just a waste of time. Phish are peers of iconic bands like Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors and Dave Matthews Band, and surfacing out of the 90s jam band music scene leading a revival of styles and improvisation dormant since the heyday of acts like Cream, Santana and the Grateful Dead. Naysayers cite the band’s live extended jams and oddly melodic movements as aimless exploratory noodling, and their sometimes self referential or fantastical lyrics as senseless, forced rhymes. Moreover, Phish’s permanent association with the subculture they inherited from the Grateful Dead fuels the flamethrowers of those that have written the band off for non-musical reasons.

The fact is that for 30 years, Phish has been playing and recording music that fuses classic rock, funk, jazz, blues, reggae, soul, Americana, bluegrass and classical music. Their dynamic concerts and intense touring keep their “phans” loyal, some returning over 50 shows. Phish’s has released 12 studio albums, and their most recent is June 24th’s “Fuego.” The album spans 10 songs, featuring 3 to 9 minute compositions and showcasing the kind of Phish never before heard on record.

Phish chose the realist psychedelia of Spanish painter Paco Pomet to represent Fuego visually. The blending of real subjects and unreal environments in the art aligns with the album’s effort to capture Phish’s live sound on record. In fact, Phish created Fuego by searching for musical ideas in their massive catalog of live and practice recordings, looking for starting material in their own improvisations. The band is touring in support of Fuego and celebrated it’s release with an extended set on The Late Show with David Letterman, which is available to stream online.

Fuego’s first and title track was cut mostly live in October 2013, reportedly during a sound check preceding the album’s live debut on Halloween in Atlantic City, NJ (then, it was tentatively titled “Wingsuit”). At 9 minutes,”Fuego” asserts Phish’s live prowess and unique style. Progressive rock tinged funk leads to a swift exploratory instrumental and back again before pianist Page McConnell carries the outro. “The Line” is another unique sounding tune whose wobbly choruses tells the story of college basketball player Darius Washington Jr.’s experience missing free throws that would change his life forever, and it’s chorus resonates with the the uncertainty commonly felt about the future.

The jam in “Devotion to a Dream” is a great example of classic rock Phish and the experience of their tight rock sensibility in a live setting. The rest of the track exudes Trey Anastasio’s pop rocking side usually reserved for his solo efforts. Penned by pianist/keyboardist Page McConnell, “Halfway to the Moon” is introspective lyrically, and it’s eerie, forthright piano groove creates a stark contrast against the previous two tracks. “Winterqueen” has a fantastical theme, alluding to troubled royals in what reads as a Narnia-like world, and is accompanied by a calm and soothing arpeggiated melody.

Tight instrumentation, ingenious lyrical wordplay and clever vocal treatments make the psychedelia-infused “Sing Monica” a standout track. It’s guitar solo is the stuff of legends, and the tune has transformed to a 60s rock homage from it’s debut arrangement on upright bass, (standing) cocktail drumset, Fender Rhodes and acoustic guitar. “555″ was written by bassist and sneaker connoisseur Mike Gordon, and the minor groove delivers on all fronts musically. The mix accentuates the song’s call and response vocals, well placed horns and choir like backing vocals add depth, and stellar takes from McConnell and Anastasio on organ and wah-wah’d guitar respectively top off a wholly satisfying experience.

“Waiting All Night” was released as the album’s first single and features instrumental motifs both new for Phish and (until now) reserved for the live setting. Drummer John Fishman’s prominent jazzy drum work fills much of the space, locking in with Gordon’s arpeggios and “bass bombs” (courtesy of his Meatball and Taurus effects pedals), Anastasio’s modulated guitar and McConnell’s high register organ sounds. “Wombat” embodies the fun, never-too-serious attitude Phish has embraced throughout their career. The funky tune’s lyrics reference the 1970s TV show “Fish,” the band’s own folklore and choice observations about wombats. Horns and choir vocals return here as well. “Wingsuit” bears the album’s debut title, and is a fitting closing to the album. Aphoristic lyrics allude to change, freedom and taking new beginnings head on. The album ends with the mellow, modulated feel that carries through a handful of tracks on the album and, of course, a huge soulful guitar solo. Subtle lead out electronic sounds accentuate the touch of former Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel producer Bob Ezrin.

As an album, “Fuego” shows Phish’s drive to innovate and abandon their comfort zone. It stands in stark musical contrast to the band’s previous albums and always variable live performances but blends their general concepts, illustrating the ingenuity of the jam band that defined the genre. Despite what reputation Phish gets among it’s loving fans or steadfast opponents, one thing is clear: Phish is an American band to the core. They blend styles, write, and perform live with unbridled optimism, as if there is no limit to their capabilities. Live and on record, they strive to draw the listener to an experience of creatively filled, dynamic musical space. Phish have never been preoccupied with record deals, cash advances, radio play or critical acclaim and they are certainly not about to start. They’ll continue to deliver soulful, creative, and interesting music under the radar as long as they can, and Fuego is proof of that concept.

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