Because I am a rabid Phish fan who also happens to love the narrative richness and sonic elasticity of the recorded album, I am awaiting the release of Phish’s 12th studio album, Fuego, with immense anticipation.
Coming on the heels of their grand Halloween experiment, and knowing full-well that these are some of the band’s most introspective, self-conscious, and lyrically-driven songs of their entire career, my own personal expectations surrounding this particular record exceed any I’ve ever had towards a new Phish album in the past.
Aside from aspects of Rift, Billy Breathes, The Story Of The Ghost, and — depending on your penchant for first takes and rough cuts — Round Room, Phish hasn’t really crafted a great album yet. For a band that’s focused so much of their career on producing highly-engaging, emotive, and densely-layered live shows — many of which ultimately reward studious re-listening — that they haven’t yet released a studio album that can even be mentioned on the same level with many of their shows is something of a minor artistic tragedy.
Through both their concerted delivery method of the songs that comprise Fuego, and the hiring of legendary Canadian producer Bob Ezrin — not to mention all the individual statements from each member over the past six months— it’s clear here that Phish has gone to great lengths in effort to overcome the artistic barrier of crafting a memorable record. The goal here being(insofar as much as I can tell): replicating the equitable playing and open-ended possibilities that make their live shows such must-see (and must-hear) events within the medium of a studio album.
Over the past month we’ve been treated to three of the ten tracks from the forthcoming record: “Waiting All Night,” “The Line,” and “555.” While we won’t be able to say for certain how successful (or not) Phish was at achieving their stated goals until we have time to absorb Fuego as a complete piece, it’s still worth examining the end results of nearly a third of the album’s final product.
In a July 2013 feature with MusicRadar.com, Bob Ezrin was asked what the key was to crafting memorable studio albums. His response:
“When your motivation is to simply be successful and sell records, you’re going to fail,” Ezrin says. “But if you’re interested in doing something excellent and producing work that matters, you’re going to succeed. The best artists I’ve worked with have always obsessed over their work; they’ve paid very little attention to the market that it goes into. They know that the art is all that counts.”
Bob Ezrin got his start in the mid-70's, when his mentor, Jack Richardson (Producer of such 70's-era, Arena Rock classics as: The Guess Who’s Canned Heat, Bob Seager’s Night Moves, and Badfinger’s Say No More) assigned him Alice Cooper’s Love It To Death. On the band’s 3rd record, Ezrin cleaned up their lengthy psychedelic wanderings, focused the songwriting, and emphasized the raw power that was the essential nature of Cooper’s live show. Throughout, the guitars are tangible and savory, the drums are brawny and fully in command, and there’s a pervasive space within the songs that lingers in the same way great rock songs tend to in massive concrete arenas and outdoor sheds.
In addition, Ezrin’s made his name producing such Rock classics as Peter Gabriel (I), Kiss’s Destroyer, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and Lou Reed’s Berlin. For as diverse a resume as this is, the unifying factor between each of these records is Ezrin’s emphasis on 1.) tightening the artistic ship, and, 2.) accentuating each band’s instinctive musical prowess in effort to spotlight the elements that make said artist so singular and powerful. Listen to the sparseness and melodic simplicity of Gabriel’s I, or the direct roar of Destroyer, or the theatrical sprawl and equally lucid power of The Wall to understand how Ezrin both streamlines each of the above artists natural sound, while simultaneously allowing their most endearing features to run wild.
These records are as meticulously detailed as they are true to the artists that crafted them as they are bold new statements that further enrich said artist’s careers. For a band such as Phish to take on the challenge of crafting an Ezrin record in their 31st year says as much about their renewed dedication to their career as it does about how seriously the band wants to add a classic album to their resume.
Of the three released tracks off Fuego, it’s “The Line” that received the least amount of production assistance from Ezrin. It’s also perhaps not irrelevant that “The Line” was the most complete song Phish debuted on 10/31/2013. A song that Grantland’s Stephen Hyden praised, saying it had “the best ‘extended instrumental coda’ moment in any rock song since Deerhunter’s “Desire Lines,” “The Line” is only subtly touched up here by Ezrin. One presumes the producer sought to simply emphasize the melodic grace already present, rather than tamper with a good thing. Aside from the echo surrounding Trey’s voice during the bridge, the official recording of “The Line” is more or less just a tighter version of the three live versions we’ve heard thus far.
This is a good thing.
In its musical constitution “The Line” has always felt like two different songs to me. The front end is a mix between the woodsy trot of The Basement Tapes-era Band and the awkward plod Wilco’s “Company In My Back,” while the jam that ends it is one of the more structurally emotive solos Phish has ever crafted in a song. The recording is noticeably slower than the live versions which allows Trey to extend the end of his vocal lines in one of his better recorded singing performances to date.
For me, the most critical aspect of this recording is the nearly two-minute instrumental coda that is every bit as moving here as it is in its three live versions. Trey’s soloing is straightforward and melodic — think 10/29/2013 “Down With Disease” and the 10/31/2013 “Carini” — and Page’s keys have been raised in the mix, emphasizing his lyrical notes, thus accentuating the improvisational partnership between guitarist and keyboardist that was ultimately the key to Fall 2013's brilliance. That this is preserved with such clarity as it is in this recording is a testament to both Phish’s songwriting, and Ezrin’s understanding of when to be hand’s off.
On the two tracks where Ezrin’s work is heard clearest, “Waiting All Night” is produced with shimmering weightlessness that is both fitting, considering the song’s origins, and a marked departure for Phish. To the contrary, “555" comes off as borderline gimmickry while somehow still being endearing in a way only a bluesy Phish performance can be.
When they debuted it five songs into the Wingsuit set, “Waiting All Night,” felt somewhat out of place coming in between the sunny pop-mastery of “Sing Monica,” and the funk-laced joke of “Wombat.” Still, I loved the blissful, 3am quality to it, and it immediately reminded me of my favorite songs off Yo La Tengo’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. Seeing as the 10/20/2013 “Tweezer” had already made me wonder how much Ira Kaplan Trey’s been listening to lately, this song only solidified for me the influence of the Hoboken trio on Phish these days.
An unexpected pick as the lead-single from Fuego, “Waiting All Night” gave us the first glimpse of just what was potential with the Phish/Ezrin partnership. A true headphones listen, the recording is dense and layered, it’s both pillowy and hypnotic, ultimately allowing the spiraling melody to put the listener in a trance while demanding re-listens.
My favorite moments: Fishman’s vocal lead right out the gates; Mike’s first Meatball at 1:05 (is there any warmer or fuzzier sound from Phish’s 3.0 live performance than a properly placed Meatball? Here it proves to be an essential link between the studio and the stage.); At 2:28, when Page’s rising melody meets with the acoustic strum and Mike’s Meatball, creating a kaleidoscope of sound that’s never before been heard on a Phish recording; The 3:19 vocal reentrance that matches the swirling melodies and is the closest Phish has ever come to sounding Beach Boys-esque; At 3:39 when Mike’s bass rises in the mix and weaves around Trey’s notational slides, continuing the dream-like nature to the song; Trey’s reprise of the chorus that closes the song — never before has Trey sounded so clear, nor has Phish sounded so lonely.
As a studio recording, “Waiting All Night” is both a breakthrough and an artistic masterpiece for Phish. One really has to wonder how they’re going to match the glossiness and essential layering of the song in their live versions. And yet, after hearing this version, I could really care less how they play it live. This recording is the exact way this song was intended to be heard. That alone is a rare feat for Phish. Regardless how the band works the song into their rotation, this recording is reason enough to applaud their efforts on Fuego.
As a song, “555" was one of the strongest debuts of Halloween 2013. Mike, who has been perhaps Phish’s most inspired songwriter of 3.0, borrows from the band’s 2010 Waiting For Columbus set, crafting a song that is singularly Gordeaux, while tipping a hat to some of Phish’s most treasured influences. Though Phish and the Blues have always had something of a tenuous relationship — much like Phish’s uuber-white interpretation of Funk — there’s no denying the joy Phish & their fans get from throwing down Son Seals, Chuck Berry, and Led Zeppelin — not to mention “46 Days” and “Character Zero.” Beyond this, just hearing how quickly the song developed into a jam that strongly resembled the 08/19/2012 “Light” in its debut was reason enough for most fans to drool with glee over the song’s jamming potential in 2014.
The recording is somewhat more complicated. Per Phish.net:
The number 555 is known alternately as the “highest death” and the numerologic symbol for mankind. When the number 555 appears before you, it is a sign for a life changing thought or event having just occurred. You may not like it, or you may. Whatever the case, your Spirit Guides are notifying you that a change in your life path direction has just occurred, and it is time for you to change too.
The lyrical origins of the song are indeed heavy, and there’s an ominous nature to the music that was apparent in both it’s debut, and subsequent performance on 12/29/2013. The song feels in some ways like it’s risen from the sodden streets of New Orleans. As a result, on Fuego’s version there are horns, female backing vocals, and Fishman sings through a vocal effect that somehow sounds like he’s singing thorough a ProTools-enhanced trash can; it’s organically distorted and digitally altered all at once. I’m completely torn about how I feel about this song in this setting.
On the one hand I applaud Phish for taking a risk and overtly jazzing up a song that sounded as punchless on 12/29 as it was assertive in its debut. Phish has a unique relationship with the music of New Orleans. While they struggle to do justice to the Black music that laid the foundation for their career, they do regularly — and sincerely — honor the spirit of America’s artistic breadbasket. So much so that they’ve earned the right to craft their own song in its image. Beyond this, the production of “555” expertly fuses space and noise with the underlying melodies, thus recreating the openness of Phish’s summery live sound. This alone has been so challenging for them to recreate in past studio efforts.
At the same time, the horns and backing vocals border on being overwrought and gimmicky, and Trey’s solo lacks much of the deliberate power that defined his best work in 2013 that I can’t help but cringe throughout it, even as I’m movin’ & shakin’ to the inherent groove of the song. What’s more is it’s clear the live version is going to have to emphasize improv to really find lasting value in the roatation, less the band is holding out for a new “Sample,” “Zero,” “Stealin’ Time,” or “46 Days.” In the end, “555" feels like the song from Fuego that Bob Ezrin hijacked the keys to and did with it what he wished. Perhaps the horns and backing vocals will grow on me. For the time being, this song feels a tad overproduced for my own personal liking.
The real test for Phish will come when Fuego is ultimately released and we can hear it as a complete, and unified piece. At that point we’ll be able to hear how the soundcheck recording of the title track translates to the album, how “Halfway To The Moon’s” sultry groove is interpreted in the studio, how the moronic infectiousness of “Wombat” works outside the zone of a live concert, and how the airiness of “Wingsuit” is treated in the album’s closing roll. Questions over flow — seriously, how is “Waiting All Night,” “Wombat,” and “Wingsuit” going to work as a closing trio? — and thoughts on the production quality will surely follow as well.
For now, it’s clear the impact of Bob Ezrin has resulted in two fantastic studio recordings, and one that wholly depends on your interpretation of it as either an honorable tribute, or a gross imitation. Without question, Ezrin has sharpened Phish’s approach in the studio, and, to his credit, he’s found a way to both simplify and maximize Phish’s sound in a contained space that — at least in these three examples — is the closest we’ve come to hearing the energy of their live shows in album form.
It’s an exciting time to be a Phish fan. Never before has a Phish record seemed to hold the power of the band’s remarkable live performances. Combining the release of what could potentially be a breakthrough record at the onset of their highly-anticipated Summer Tour is move that harkens back to their halcyon days. As a diehard Phish fan, and someone who’s always yearned for the Phish album that finds a permanent spot in my record rotation, 24 June can’t come fast enough.