What to say, what to say about Phish’s newest release, Fuego.
I’ll be perfectly honest: I am not a fan of ‘New Phish’ and Fuego captures many reasons why. New Phish is the name that I’ve quietly referred to Phish as since the band reunited in 2009 after a 5 year hiatus. New Phish, to my ears, sounds mature, they sound clean and they seem like they’re much safer musically than they’ve ever been. Above all else, their music doesn’t seem to have that same quirky, weirdness that I and I imagine so many other fans of the band were attracted to.
New Phish was best captured with their 2009 release, Joy, an album of simple rock songs with catchy grooves and what were in my opinion, tired, mediocre lyrics that at first whiff seemed honest and attempt at much-needed new material. Not that there was anything wrong from the hits that fans and myself have grown to love and eagerly wait to see if they’ll get played at the next show. Far from it, actually. Joy exemplified safe, forgettable songwriting and unfortunately Fuego seems to have fallen into the same pitfall.
Before I unleash the critique of this album I would like to preface this whole review with two statements. The first is that Studio Phish has, to me, always paled in comparison to Live Phish. Phish, like many of their colleagues in the jam band circuit and influences, the Grateful Dead, never seem to do well in the studio. The studio atmosphere and the recording microphones just can’t capture the raw energy that flows naturally at these shows and this album is no exception.
That being said, it becomes very difficult to really critique an album of a band that, frankly, shouldn’t really be in the studio ever and their music was entirely meant to be played live. The studio cuts and albums of Phish seem more like markers in the band’s musical legacy than meant to indoctrinate new fans. They’re time stamps saying ‘this is what we did and thought was cool at this time’.
The second statement is that though Phish is a band I believe that should never set foot in a studio, the production and recording on this album is amazing. It truly is. Every instrument comes in clear and crisp and producer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd’s producer) clearly sweat the details. The vocal harmonies between band members sound clean and harmonious, the bass is punchy and cutting, the drums – all of the drums – sound absolutely perfect. While the songwriting on this album sounded safe and like a bunch of middle aged men trying to recapture their weirdness from years past, the record was an absolute joy to listen to for the recording quality alone.
All of that being said, the long and short is that I was not a fan of the album – and really haven’t been a fan of Studio Phish since Story of the Ghost for a number of reasons. Aside from the studio mix never truly capturing the magic of the band, I feel like after 1998, the band’s songwriting significantly fell off. Many of Phish’s new songs just sound too safe and considerably less adventurous than their earlier music. Few songs have that stickiness that ‘Split Open and Melt’ had or ‘Birds of a Feather’ or ‘Rift’. They just sound like, well, songs. Plain ol’ rock songs, which, for a band of such high musical caliber, that’s saying a lot. Not to say I’m expecting another album like Junta or A Picture of Nectar at this time, but there is a feeling of lacking with New Phish and this album doesn’t fill that void at all.
So all that being said, here’s my track by track review of Phish’s Fuego.
A Track-By-Track Review of Phish’s Fuego
The album’s title track hits you with a bite of progressive rock with some elements of hard rock. Heavy, overdriven guitars from the band’s guitarist Trey Anastasio, layered over drummer Jon Fishman’s open hi hat and cracking snare winding and weaving through a maze of notes and passages before kicking into the 2:30 minute mark, where it feels like almost a whole other song takes over. The tempo is considerably more upbeat, the groove and the song’s key change up to something completely different. To my ear, this change up doesn’t really compliment the song as a whole in any way. It sounds more like two ideas were just slapped together and someone pressed record and there doesn’t appear to be much rhyme, reason or consistency as the song alternates between ‘Song 1’ and ‘Song 2’.
Around the 4:00 minute mark, the track drops back into it’s original theme and musical idea, which again feels rather inconsistent and forced – a recurring theme throughout this album. Even after a few listens, this song still doesn’t really make sense to me more so from a musical structure than anything else. Lyrically, that is a whole other animal with it’s own set of issues. The ‘strangeness’ of the lyrics sounds forced. It sounds more like the band is trying to be weird like they used to be in the 1990s and recapture some of that nostalgia but again, rather than sounding natural the lyrical strangeness sounds forced and even trite at times. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the band’s principal lyricist during the band’s heyday, Tom Marshall, is no longer writing lyrics for the band’s music and instead Trey is doing the lyric writing.
Despite the pitfalls of the song up to this point, the outro jam – the remaining 3 minutes or so of the song – is quite pleasant. The jam is flowing, and does in fact, sound like a live cut was recorded in the studio. Perhaps the closest attempt the band has ever had at capturing their live energy in front of a recording microphone. It’s certainly the closest thing the band has come to a live-but-in-studio-jam since Story of the Ghost, back in 1998.
2. The Line
When I first heard this song, I knew it reminded me of some band but I couldn’t put my finger on what. Rolling Stone hit the nail on the head likening this song to a Steely Dan ballad. The similarities are striking: the slinky groove, the wailing vocals, the very sentimental tone paired with the delicate, piano-centric aspect of the song itself. On top of that, the subject of the song even sounds like something Steely Dan would have written about: the rise and fall of a hero.
Phish has never been something associated with sports, it was surprising to learn that this song was about college basketball player, Darius Washington Jr., the college basketball player whose missed free throws at the conclusion of the 2005 C-USA Championship game cost his team the trophy. While the subject and lyrical articulation of this story is very significant and well conveyed, in the overall scope of the album, a song about a college basketball player just seemed out of place to my ears. It was that little nagging in the back of my mind of associating Phish with sports that held me back from fully enjoying this song. However, this is a small point.
Musically, the song sounds like a simple, safe rock song – a recurring trend throughout this album: simple chord progression over a rudimentary beat whose existence is justified entirely by the message of the song and less by the musical complexity of the song itself. That all being said, Phish is one of those few bands that can take 4 chords and make them sound like the best thing you’ve ever heard in your life. Points there.
Aside from the subject of the song, like the title track itself, this song is another forgettable number and even live, there really isn’t a whole lot of jamming that has been done with it, further nailing the coffin that this band is just a song meant to fill some space. It was a good song subject with a powerful message and music to back it, but that is all. Nothing more.
3. Devotion to a Dream
This song exemplifies ‘New Phish: a simple song made of a handful of chords set to a Grateful Dead-sounding boogie-woogie groove. Though the song is lyrically forgettable, the performance by the band’s keyboard player, Page McConnell is quite good. He hits his notes and the song flows nicely. It sounds good, but there isn’t a whole lot there.
Ont other thing I’d like to point out about this song is that this song I think best captures Phish as a band and what they do musically: take very simple songs and make them groove and move in very infectious way. I can’t think of another band that can take a few chords and make them sound so good together. Phish’s strong suit is their music and it’s clearly demonstrated here and how the band plays on the track live.
Unfortunately, ‘Devotion’ suffers the same problem as all the songs up to this point: very easy rock songs without a whole lot of weirdness like something like ‘Split Open and Melt’ or ‘Reba’ or just very, funky groovy songs like ‘Birds of a Feather’. The track is a good listen if you’re looking for some ‘safe sounding’ Phish. Take it or leave it.
4. Halfway to the Moon
Phish has been doing ‘Halfway to the Moon’ live for a number of years, so to hear the song on an studio recording, again, sounds strange simply because it sounds ‘cleaner’ and more refined. Like ‘Devotion to a Dream’, it’s a lyrically driven song with music supporting it not the other way around, making it another song you can take it or leave it. Even when the song is played live, the jam to it feels very controlled and doesn’t go in any really wild direction. Again – take it or leave it. A well written song without a lot of the danger or edginess of early or even middle Phish.
This song is one of the few highlight of the whole album. ‘555’ grooves like a Story of the Ghost-era song back when the band was entering their funky period and debuting soon-to-be-hits including ‘Birds of a Feather’ and ‘Story of the Ghost’.
This song is a Mike Gordon song inside and out. The bass and drums carry the song while Trey and Page provide support in the form of some funky, sticcatto piano work and wet, squealing guitar work. This song feels like it could have come off a 70s blaxploitation film with it’s easy groove, squealing guitars, horn pops and deep punchy bass courtesy of Gordon.
If there was one thing I could say against this song it would be that Gordon was the lead singer of the track. I personally have never been much of a fan of Mike Gordon’s singing, but I will say that it has improved significantly since earlier in Phish’s tenure. It’s a small personal detail that doesn’t ruin the song at all. Great track!
6. Sing Monica
Along with ‘555’, ‘Sing Monica’ is another highlight on the album. The song is basic through and through with a verse-chorus-verse structure and that Grateful Dead-boogie-woogie feel but with one difference: infectious lyrics. What does sing Monica mean? Who knows, who cares – you can’t help but sing along. Overall, it’s a short ditty with high replay value for me that doesn’t overstay it’s welcome and make you pray to God it ends soon. Another great track.
And we’re back to the doldrums of the album.
I have never been a fan of Trey’s lyric writing since Round Room-era Phish and solo Trey. Unfortunately he’s been doing more of it since 2009. Trey, to me, thrives as a composer and as a guitar player and not as a lyricist. The band’s longtime writing partner and lyricist, Tom Marshall, is the only person that has historically captured the weirdness of Phish in words and complimented the weirdness of Phish musically. So it comes as a surprise to me to find that Marshall penned the lyrics to these songs simply because they seem so un-Marshall-y and seem like something Trey would write for a solo project.
‘Winterqueen’ is a perplexing case because of such stark highs and lows it touches on in just over 4 minutes.
The lows are the lyrics. All of them.
It’s a delicate little song that is very lyrically driven with the music taking a backseat to the performance and the lyrics are not the strongest asset for this song.
If the intent of these lyrics was to be deep and paint a vivid picture of a mystical being wondering why the Earth is the way it is and why the land and weather are what they are, they don’t. Not at all. The song sounds like it wants to be a delicate, deep fairy tale but in reality falls short and only sounds like a cheap caricature of a fairy tale.
The high is the music. It’s a beautiful song musically. It really is. The music paints a vivid picture of a cloudy winter landscape, snowflakes gently falling, the wind gently blowing and icicles dangling from the trees. Any piece of music that creates such complete imagery is something worthy of praise. Take the lyrics away, and I would listen to this instrumental on repeat of days.
But again – while the music is beautiful and the unquestionably the best part of this song, the lyrics are trying to knock down any enjoyment I can pull from this song. The lyrics sound like they want to be deep but fall flat. Provided Marshall is the lyricist behind this song, I’m not surprised. Marshall has always sounded most natural writing goofy, playful lyrics for Trey to sing, not profound, deep, vivid lyrics.
Tough call. I’ll leave this one up to you. I imagine it’s better live, but for now….
8. Waiting All Night
Phish released ‘Waiting All Night’ as their first single in support of this album and I had very mixed feelings about it when I first heard it. My initial thoughts were:
While I dropped the adult contemporary bit, the first and third comments still hold true. The track combines whimsy with darkness in a way that only Phish could and did it bes ton their 1996 release, Billy Breathes. The song feels heavy and engulfs the listener in a dark shroud. You really do begin to wonder who has this band been waiting all night for? Why have they done it? What’s coming next?
Compositionally, it’s a great nugget of Phishness. The lyrics match the music and the song has a purpose. There seems to be no disconnect between lyrics and music and they both compliment each other beautifully. Even live, this song shines through. Fantastic track, no problem seeing why this was the single.
Ever wonder what a bunch of 40 year old men trying to be weird like their old selves might sound like? Play ‘Wombat’.
Musically, ‘Wingsuit’ is somewhere between ‘The Line’ and ‘Waiting All Night’: elements of a Steely Dan ballad musically, with profound fitting lyrics on the other end. The song is an apt closer to this album. I can’t help but imagine a man putting on a wingsuit and getting ready to jump off a cliff and soar off into the unknown, as the sun sets around him. Knowing that this song is the last song on the album coupled with the lyrics and music itself, it really does feel like the closer to a movie where the listener leaves with their own opinions of the album. In some ways satisfied, in others not; some highs some lows and some moments the listener would like to forget and others to share with friends.
‘Wingsuit’ is ‘Wingsuit for whatever that comment is worth. It doesn’t seem like it can be judged on musical quality, just fit in the bigger picture. Great song for what it is and a great choice to close the album with.
This seems like the new direction of Phish: safe, rock songs without a lot of frills and when they do get wild it tends to feel forced.
Studio Phish will always be lacking to Live Phish and this reality couldn’t be better exemplified here. While the band says they’re feeling better for this recording, we’re having fun in the studio and jamming out more and recording it, this album – to my ears – doesn’t feel like the truth. It feels like a slightly more adventurous version of their 2009 release, Joy, which even to this day still is tough to listen to because it sounds so safe and clean.
Mike Gordon and all the band members are on point musically. Phish’s musicianship has never been a point of question. The band has been and still is one of the tightest musical acts I know and continue to deliver outstanding, unmatched musical experiences live and to an extend over studio recordings.
That being said, it’s the songwriting that I feel has been Phish’s Achilles Heel and this album is another example of that. The songs here are very safe and secure. They don’t go too far away from a comfortable medium but when they do, they just feel awkward and forced. These guys are approaching middle age, simply put, can’t harness that same weirdness that made them so beloved before. When you write a song called ‘Chalkdust Torture’ and it has a ripping groove attached to nonsensical lyrics and play it in your 20s, it’s a good time. But when you try to be profound and deep in your middle age, the knife works the other way. Weirdness is a hallmark of Phish but unfortunately, the time seems to have passed on them for more quality, natural musical weirdness.
Phish’s Fuego just sounds tired and too much like a cheap recreation of all the classic elements of what made Phish so fantastic in the 90s.
Overall, give it a listen, maybe a second listen, but just go see the band live.
Correction: Tom Marshall was not the lyricist behind the early Phish songs, ‘Reba’, ‘Split Open and Melt’ and ‘Fee’. Guitarist Trey Anastasio was credited with the lyrics for those songs. Thank you @chillwingsuit for the catch!