Written by Andrew Howie
So Phish recently released their newest studio album, Big Boat. In the annals of bands who “you have to see live to get them”, today, this applies to Phish more than any other. While they certainly have some quality studio material from their earlier days, their well-known reputation has been built on their live shows. Their hallmark is the sharing of the groove, the extended collective improvisation and unbridled creativity that keeps Phans on the road for months at a time. All of that said, it’s an interesting choice for them to release a new studio album, especially when their last was only two years ago (2014’s Fuego).
In the interim, Phish released enough material for two albums; their Halloween show in 2014 and the subsequent tours of 2015 and 2016 were evidently a productive writing period for the group. In fact, most of the songs on Big Boat were road-tested before being cut to a physical form. Songs like “No Men In No Man’s Land” go back to the tour opener of the summer of 2015, while newer songs like “Miss You” and “Breath and Burning” made their debuts just a few months ago (Wrigley Field and Deer Creek, respectively).
While the songwriting is about what you’d expect if you’ve been keeping up with Phish lately (more laid-back, but providing ample room for jamming), as usual there is something lost on the studio recording. Maybe that comes from having seen them five times this year alone, and I certainly don’t dislike the album, it’s just underwhelming, because once you’ve seen them rip something up live, it’s hard to hear the constrained album version. Part of Phish’s appeal is the anticipation of not knowing what’s going to happen. These songs are more focused, less demanding of the listener, and there are horns involved, which just feels like a tease (I’ve never seen them with horns and would love them to do that again).
Again, none of these songs are bad, and if you’ve never listened to Phish before, this might be a good starting place. It can certainly be hard to wrap your head around some of their more formless live jams, and these songs are structurally a bit easier on the brain than some of their more experimental music (with the possible exception of “Petrichor”, the 13-minute album closer that guitarist Trey Anastasio has previously performed live with a full orchestra). Phish sounds comfortable as well; it sounds more like they just really wanted to make this album, rather than something they had to do.
Longtime Phans may not even listen to the album (mainly because they’ve already seen all the songs on tour), and I certainly understand that, but if you’re a newcomer it wouldn’t be the worst starting place. Phish is still playing incredibly well live and these songs do well in large venues in the open air, and they will be fun to play acoustically around a campfire. I of course recommend Phish to any serious music appreciators, and if you want to have a solid idea of song structure vs. improv, this would be an easy intro to their style. The aforementioned songs plus “Blaze On”, “Waking Up Dead”, and “Home” showcase the different songwriting styles of the individual band members (all four members contribute to the writing process).
As far as live shows go, Phish is top-notch and you should go see them. In a studio setting they lose some of the fire, but to the uninitiated ear, it can help with getting to know the band. I would recommend this as a way to break into them, but Phish requires research. Maybe put on while you’re doing some reading about them, and I think once you settle in and surrender to the flow, you’ll see what all the fuss is about.
Rating: 7 out of 10