JEMP, 2014


REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


Phish returns!

The veteran jam band’s first studio disc since 2009 finds them having a good time on 10 new songs recorded in three different studios with the exception of the 10-minute title cut, which was recorded at a soundcheck in October. That take was in preparation for a Halloween show in which the band debuted these songs to a group of surprised fans, so those who avidly follow the band have probably heard most of these tunes already.

The world did not need another Phish live album, so a studio disc is a welcome offering, and although little of this breaks any sort of new ground, it offers a bevy of solid cuts that hold up as well as anything in the group’s catalog; at times, the best songs recall Billy Breathes, the group’s best studio effort.

Perhaps live, the title song will have more to offer, but “Fuego” is kind of a mess, all awkward phrasing, non-sequitur lyrics and some great guitar work with hints of funk in the rhythm (a recurring theme on the disc). It’s good to hear the guys stretch out on record, but it doesn’t do any favors to the notion that jam bands can’t make a great studio album. (Which is a complete fallacy, as the Dave Matthews Band, Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers made some of the best albums of their era. It’s just that Phish hasn’t made a great studio album, although my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Billy Breathes comes close).

The album works its way through a wide-eyed, upbeat sound, displaying a confidence that only comes from a democratic approach to playing and songwriting honed over three decades. As there is nothing that reinvents the wheel, the enjoyment lies in the details, such as the closing guitar solo to “Devotion To A Dream” and the efficient “Halfway To The Moon,” which has been in the band’s live shows for a little while and so displays assurance with a grin. “Sing Monica” and “Winterqueen” are more of the same to far lesser results, while “The Line” has an interesting true-life sports story but fails to connect musically.

It is the back half of the disc that provides the personality. “Waiting All Night,” the first single, is the highlight by a mile, Trey Anastasio’s vocals moving from a comment to a plea as the music, which starts off pleasantly, takes a few turns in the melody that move the song in a different emotional direction. “555” displays a funky groove and some great bass playing, eventually adding on horns and setting it to a deliberate, loping rhythm.

The worst track – perhaps of Phish’s career – is “Wombat,” which is fun to say and which tries to be a joke but fails miserably. It works best as a mocking tribute to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who routinely release music with these jerky funky rhythms and dumbass lyrics and play it all straight, and Anastasio does a killer Anthony Kiedis impression. If it wasn’t meant to be that, though, then it’s just painful. Far better is the closing neo-psychedelic “Wingsuit,” with Pink Floyd overtones and the inspirational line “You’ll never win a major only shooting par.”

For a band to still be shooting par after 30 years, and having fun doing it, is a pretty impressive feat, and by no means is Fuego deserving of the distaste thrown at it by fans or the fawning thrown at it by other fans and critics. It’s a fine album, no more, no less. Those who never cared much for Phish won’t have their minds changed, but casual or hardcore fans of the band will find something to love here, especially on the second half. Either way, as Anastasio has said he wants to get away from playing covers live, expect to hear many of these songs in the band’s stage shows this year.

Rating: C+

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© 2014 Benjamin Ray and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of JEMP, and is used for informational purposes only.