It was in the year 2000, after a period that retrospectively can easily be defined as "tired and uninspired", that Phish split. Better said, it was then that the group decided to begin their "extended hiatus" of (obviously) unknown length. So it was time for solo careers, without too much success, in both commercial and artistic terms - at least, that is, when compared to the peaks reached by the group. Then, one day, it came the time for the four musicians - as it had silently been expected starting from day one - to get together again. Released at the end of 2002, sounding very relaxed and creatively quite brilliant, Round Room showed how beneficial and, in retrospect, how necessary the rest had been. So it looked like everything was happily back to normal. However, Summer 2004 had not even started when Trey Anastasio, the group's guitarist and main composer, dropped the bomb: Phish was to split, this time forever.

Released not too long after the announcement, Undermind appeared to demonstrate that inside the group something (or a lot) was not working as well as expected. Taking care of production, recording, and mixing, Tchad Blake appeared to be a bit too heavy-handed in his use of echoes, reverbs, and space, but it could well be that the material at his disposal didn't give him much choice in the matter when it came to any possible alternatives. The way it all ended left a bad taste in one's mouth.

So it was back to solo careers, Anastasio's (as it was to be expected) being frantic from day one. Then one day news came out of his arrest, due to possession of controlled substances. I have to admit I was very surprised: beyond a "recreational" attitude, and the normal necessity of a better (internal, also interpersonal) communication, Anastasio's attitude towards life had always appeared to me as being characterized by a very strong sense of discipline (serene, almost Zen-like, but discipline nonetheless: just check the relaxed posture of his left hand fingers on the fretboard in any video), so to me his "losing control" didn't quite add up.

It was more or less one year ago that I heard rumours about the group reforming, then it was more than rumours, then it was the official announcement, then it was three dates to be performed at the familiar Hampton Coliseum, in Hampton, Va. Then it was announced that the group was about to enter the studio to record a new album. The producer? Steve Lillywhite. Here the group's fans held their breath: isn't Billy Breathes (1996) universally considered as being the best studio album by the Vermont quartet?

Titled Joy, the new album was released on September, 8. This time Phish decided to start a new, indie, label: a move that given the current framework where Majors are sinking fast couldn't be more appropriate for a group that have always regarded the stage as being their natural habitat, the multitude of their faithful fans obviously being a big part of the equation. So, not much promotion, and (as a logical consequence?) not a lot of reviews.

As it's maybe understandable, more than a few among my US colleagues have looked into the album's lyrics and mood, searching for signs of Anastasio's recent legal troubles. Not many appeared to remember about the death of Anastasio's sister, due to a serious illness. A picture of her can be found on the penultimate page on the album's booklet. It has to be remembered, by the way, that as it's been the custom since day one, almost all song lyrics here were written by Anastasio's old friend Tom Marshall. It goes without saying that talking about calendars, life experiences, and time passing away go hand-in-hand with specific moods, but this is a part of the story that I think it's better for readers to explore on their own (the CD booklet has all the lyrics).

So, does Joy resemble Billy Breathes? Not at all. Better said, there are a couple of moments (the first moments of Joy, the first part of Twenty Years Later) where it's very easy to tell the group, the singer, the sound. But in those specific instances it appears that's the narrative function that suggests a certain approach in production as being "best". But it's the whole album that easily shows that Steve Lillywhite was able to solve a very difficult problem: how to create a studio album that sounds like a live one? (Does it sound as an easy task?)

With the exception of a few (brilliant) "jam" moments, Bryce Goggin's production work on Round Room showed four musicians in a room, all in deep concentration while trying to get in touch with each other all over again. The production approach chosen by Lillywhite (after what I imagine to be a considerable time spent rehearsing) has the image of a group playing in front of an audience as its end result. No extra parts, very few overdubs: mostly vocals, the organ doubling the piano, etc. The end result sounds like an "ideal" concert where layers change often (but smoothly) to better serve compositions and performances. Here I can safely say that the album is excellent, but I really believe the sound of the album is better listened to as a whole.

Jon Fishman's drum parts are always stimulating and inventive; many times, while listening to the album, I thought how often his great skills and enormous versatility are taken for granted. On bass, Mike Gordon sounds more forceful than in the recent past, while being colourful and inventive as per his usual. Very fine work by Page McConnell on piano (his main instrument on this album) and organ (which to me sounds like a real Hammond B 3 with Leslie); I think that at first it's easy to overlook the piano (which is often on the left, playing an intense counterpoint to Anastasio's solos, which are logically placed on the right in the mix): readers are invited to pay a bit more attention. Anastasio is his usual fine self: fine rhythm work, expressive, poly-stylistic solos.

Joy features ten tracks for a total duration of about 53 minutes. With the exception of I Been Around (a brief bluesy divertissement penned by McConnell), and Time Turns Elastic (a written composition reaching the 13-minute mark that has already been performed by various orchestral ensembles), all tracks on Joy clock in at about five minutes each.

The bittersweet opener, Backwards Down The Number Line, has a strong bluegrass flavour. It will probably remind listeners of The Grateful Dead, up to Anastasio's guitar solo, very much in Jerry Garcia's style.

Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan is a tense, psychedelic rock-blues making fine use of echoes and reverbs, and an excellent work on the sibilant of the word "space" traveling in stereo. There's a very tense, nervous guitar solo that easily reminded me - check the sound, and the phrasing - of Frank Zappa in his Shut Up... period.

Joy begins as a simple, fine acoustic ballad that gets richer as it moves. There's a short, very fine, guitar solo, and a fantastic bridge that's quite reminiscent of The Beatles.

Penned by Gordon, the happy-sounding Sugar Shack is a well-performed reggae/calypso. A Clavinet and a pinch of synths appear briefly.

Ocelot is in a fantastic-sounding swing uptempo, has a very fine melodic development, and at the end offers a quote off The Beatles.

Kill Devil Falls is a rock track that greatly reminded me of Chalk Dust Torture off A Picture Of Nectar, especially the instrumental part at the end.

Light is a psychedelic gem. After a suggestive beginning, it develops along lines that are highly reminiscent of The Jefferson Airplane circa Volunteers, Nicky Hopkins sitting on piano. A fine song that maybe needs a few spins to be really appreciated.

I Been Around is the aforementioned brief, bluesy track.

My US colleagues were not very kind when it came to judge Time Turns Elastic, whose long instrumental central part was said to remind them of Genesis, or... Emerson, Lake & Phish (!). I'll say it's a fine, precise performance of a very difficult piece. The sung parts are beautiful, and have an excellent instrumental backing (the final part reminding me of The Who's classicism, circa Quadrophenia). When it comes to the long instrumental part, we already know that when compared to his rock writing Anastasio's orchestral writing is definitely less "avant-garde", but to me this is no reason enough to have it rank so poorly.

Twenty Years Later sounds as if the narrator is trying to sum it all up, then the songs develops into an emotional vocal collective with a strong, intense backing. There's a moving bridge, followed by an excellent guitar solo by Anastasio with those classic string skips, and those pinched harmonics on the verge of feedback. This could be the perfect album close (a bit too predictable, maybe?), but after a very brief pause we hear a strange, asymmetrical guitar riff, pounding drums, phased cymbals, tremolo guitar, vocals placed quite behind, with a dark dream-like mood that almost appears to counter what it's just been said, while in the middle of the fog we see somebody who looks like... Jimi Hendrix?

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2009 | Sept. 20, 2009