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Old 12-12-2010, 07:51 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Phish: Studio Discography Reviewed

Phish
Studio Discography Reviewed


Phish Are:
Trey Anastasio: Guitar, Vocals


Mike Gordon: Bass, Vocals


Page McConnell: Keys, Vocals


Jon Fishman: Percussion, Vocals

When many people think of Phish, the connotation is a negative one. The image evoked is often one of drugged-out hippies, tie-dye, Birkenstocks, and four equally drugged-out men playing mindless drivel for hours on end. One reviewer in the nineties went so far as to say that the band could piss in their fans' ears, and they'd still eat it up.

What Phish is in actuality is the union of four talented musicians into one cohesive unit, a group equally as skilled in improvisation as they are in complex song structures and musicianship. While not for everyone, their collective talent really is undeniable.

With this, I have decided to post reviews of the band's studio discography, one album at a time. Ideally, I will be able to complete this by the end of the year, making this a solid guide to the studio recordings of the band in a relatively short period of time.

Phish, as a band, have recorded a total of 15 studio albums from 1986 to the present...well, one of these was actually the senior thesis of guitarist / vocalist Anastasio, but I will include it as well: Many of the band's most well-known live songs appear only on this recording.

In Chronological Order, Phish's Studio Discography is as follows:
  • Phish (The White Tape) - 1986 (REVIEW POSTED!)
  • The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday (Trey's Senior Thesis) - 1988 (REVIEW POSTED!)
  • Junta - 1989 (REVIEW POSTED!)
  • Lawn Boy - 1990 (REVIEW POSTED!)
  • A Picture Of Nectar - 1992 (REVIEW POSTED!)
  • Rift - 1993 (REVIEW POSTED!)
  • Hoist - 1994
  • Billy Breathes - 1996
  • The Story Of the Ghost - 1998
  • The Siket Disc - 1999
  • Farmhouse - 2000
  • Round Room - 2002
  • Undermind - 2004
  • Joy - 2009
  • BONUS: Party Time - 2009

I may ultimately choose to also review their traditional live recordings, in addition to possible later reviews of the Live Phish series. For the time being, however, the studio discography is my focus.

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Old 12-12-2010, 08:00 AM   #2 (permalink)
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Never heard any Phish except that one song. Will be reading this.
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Old 12-12-2010, 10:36 AM   #3 (permalink)
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I'm pretty excited about this. After Hoist, I kinda' started ignoring their studio releases. I'm really curious to see what of the past 16 years you find ear worthy.
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Old 12-12-2010, 12:05 PM   #4 (permalink)
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All right, first review is finished and will be posted below this...as soon as I format it to my specifications.

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Never heard any Phish except that one song. Will be reading this.
Hope that you enjoy it - but bear with me, because the first two albums aren't completely true to most Phish you'll hear. Still interesting though.

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Originally Posted by SATCHMO View Post
I'm pretty excited about this. After Hoist, I kinda' started ignoring their studio releases. I'm really curious to see what of the past 16 years you find ear worthy.
Glad you're excited! And I'll get to those albums within the next week, I'm confident - a few of my favorite of their studio releases actually fall after Hoist!
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Old 12-12-2010, 12:31 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Phish

Phish (The White Tape) - 1986


Track listing

1.) Alumni Blues (Anastasio) - 4:11
2.) And So to Bed (Anastasio) - 4:44
3.) You Enjoy Myself (Anastasio) - 0:55
4.) AC/DC Bag (Anastasio) - 4:09
5.) **** Your Face (Gordon) - 2:15
6.) The Divided Sky (Anastasio) - 1:16
7.) Slave to the Traffic Light (Abrahams, Anastasio, Pollak) - 4:35
8.) Aftermath (Anastasio, Holloway) - 2:54
9.) Ingest (Anastasio) - 1:37
10.) NO2 (Gordon) - 7:37
11.) Fluff's Travels (Anastasio) - 1:22
12.) Dog Gone Dog (Anastasio) - 4:03
13.) He Ent to the Bog (Gordon, McBride) - 3:56
14.) Run Like an Antelope (Anastasio, Marshall, Pollak) - 6:41
15.) Minkin (Gordon) - 2:59
16.) Letter to Jimmy Page (Anastasio) - 1:16

Bizarre? Very. Experimental? You betcha! (Particularly solo contributions by bassist Mike Gordon) A definitive introduction to the music of Phish for the casual listener? Not exactly...

While the album features its share of songs which have become live standbys in the Phish repertoire, many of these are very different versions from what those familiar with the band may be accustomed to hearing. For example, "You Enjoy Myself", an epic, intricate, and predominately intrumental song with live versions known to exceed half an hour, clocks in at less than a minute, performed completely a cappella. Another song with live versions typically quite extensive, "The Divided Sky", also appears as a much shorter track, at just over a minute.

Recorded mainly on a four track recorder over the course of three years (with full band tracks recorded predominately in the spring and fall of 1986), Phish's self-titled, self-distributed cassette (often referred to as The White Tape) is truly an interesting work.

Many tracks lean heavily to the bizarre, avant-garde, and occasionally almost unlistenable direction (the latter due mainly to the poor production quality), but there are a handful of gems more indicative of Phish's real sound. One such song is the opening track, "Alumni Blues".



One of the several songs recorded with the current Phish line-up intact, "Alumni Blues" is a solid, well, BLUES-Y track which is more on the catchy side. The song features some endearingly nonsensical lyrics, typical of many of the band's works ("Woke up this mornin', and I had those walking blues / I wasn't walkin' nowhere / 'Cause I didn't have no legs!") and some pretty nice blues licks from Anastasio. Interestingly enough, the band played the song at Goddard College, from which Anastasio himself had earned a creative writing degree. It was particularly fitting as in the chorus, he proudly proclaims, "I'm all right now / 'Cause I got a degree!"

"Alumni Blues" has been seen live quite often paired with the closing track, an Anastasio-composed instrumental piece, "Letter To Jimmy Page".



"Letter To Jimmy Page" was a hard-rocking guitar piece written by Trey, then 21, as a way to pay homage to one of his inspirations. The song itself seems a bit reminiscent of early Page, and seems to me to be a pretty nice "letter" for anyone to receive: Short, sweet, and solid. It's not one of the best songs the band ever recorded, but it does have quite a bit of charm about it.

Possibly one of Phish's more well-known songs, and a track used quite freqently within their live shows is "AC/DC Bag".



Based on the lyrical content, the song is not, as one would suspect from the title, about the band AC/DC. In actuality, the song ties into Trey's "Gamehendge" universe, which I will detail more fully in my review for his senior thesis. Many people have claimed (incorrectly!) that the song received its name solely because of the chord progression in the chorus of the song, which they believe to be "A-C-D-C-B-A-G". Close...but no cigar. The actual chord progression is "A-C-D-C-F-A-G"...hmm. Perhaps Anastasio was taking a swing at the band...

While these songs have been relatively normal in the grand scheme of things, (normal for Phish, particularly in their early days, that is) there is some weirdness...okay, a lot of weirdness...which goes down on this album. Most of it is, unsurprisingly, the work of bassist Mike Gordon who is a very interesting character indeed. I would be remiss if I didn't highlight some of those tracks for you. First, the obscenely-titled "**** Your Face".



"**** Your Face" is on the heavier side of the musical spectrum, almost seeming to recall very angry proto-punk influence. On the song, Gordon sings and plays all of the instruments featured on the track. The lyrics are delivered more as spoken words, and tend to be quite frank and amusing: "This guitar's gonna **** your face / 'Cause it knows how to scream." This song was definitely the creation of Gordon, but isn't even remotely as bizarre as much of his other work on the album. For proof, look no further than this next Gordon track, "He Ent To the Bog".



The beginning of this song is also delivered spoken rather than sung, but layered strangely with Gordon whispering as he speaks. There are bizarre sounds throughout, including but not limited to:
  • Channel changing sounds
  • An opera sample
  • A sound reminiscent of an alarm clock
In addition to this, there is also a great deal of a woman on the phone telling...hamburger jokes. Yes. Jokes about hamburgers; you read that correctly. There are also pleasant snatches of orchestral music, some slightly jarring and sudden brass, and moderately chill music, but the strangeness overwhelms the track. Near the end of the song, however, I did quite enjoy the music in conjunction with the orchestral sampling; it seemed very reminiscent of Danny Elfman in a strange way.

In many ways, this album isn't really something one could sit down and listen to everyday. The production quality is pretty shoddy, and the highs are often more grating than they need to be...which is particularly painful when they're intended to be grating.

With that said, it's worth a listen at least. This is a band which has made a pretty big name for themselves and done with live music things which were unprecedented. (The longest one band concert of all time, for example) This is that band in the earliest stages of their development, when they were lucky to perform in front of more than a dozen or so people. This is raw, experimental, and gives you the opportunity to listen to a band playing for nothing more than the love of playing. The guys were in their early 20s, college students, just having a good time...and they were amazingly talented even then.

With THAT said: This isn't even remotely close to being their best album. It's pretty rough.

Rating: C-
(71/100)

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Old 12-12-2010, 06:07 PM   #6 (permalink)
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This album went completely under my radar until today, and while there was always talk of Trey's thesis amid white lighter conspiracies and lung cripple bong hits I don't ever remember hearing about anything before that. Didn't Fishman come along just prior to recording Trey's thesis? What was the lineup for this ensemble?

Anyways, I already think you need to expand upon your intent for this thread and include some of the bands adjunct/solo work. You seem to be the forum's only real jam band enthusiast--yes, I hate that term too, but what are you going to do, and I need someone to bring me up to speed on things! Excellent writeup, keep on keepin' on.
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Old 12-12-2010, 06:35 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Thank you!

To be quite honest, I'd not heard of The White Tape until about a year and a half ago. I had previously believed myself to own Phish's entire studio discography, but was proved wrong by a dear friend of mine. The first time I listened to it, I actually did listen to it on a cassette that had circulated and reached my friend, so that was an interesting experience.

And no, Fishman was already in the band at that point - in fact, the band's named after the guy! Haha. Page McConnell, the keyboard / piano / organ / etc. player is the last one who came along, and he joined the band officially in 1985 - so he's on The White Tape, too. He's actually the one who convinced the guys to transfer from the University of Vermont to Goddard College - because he got money for recruiting people to the school, and also just really wanted to jam with the other three.

And yes - I feel like I'm going to have to expand on this thread - not necessarily even with the live stuff first. There are a lot of side projects and things that the band did, even one where all four were the backing band to "The Dude Of Life", Steve Pollak on his album. Additionally, I was torn as to whether or not I should include the album Trampled By Lambs and Pecked by the Doves which was Trey Anastasio and Tom Marshall (who penned many of Phish's lyrics) performing as a duo in early-ish versions of MANY Phish songs.

Plus, some of their solo stuff...and Mike Gordon's albums with Leo Kottke...really seem to be worth mention.

Ah, I don't mind the term jam band enthusiast all that much, really. I do love my jam bands, and don't really see that as an awful thing.
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Old 12-12-2010, 07:03 PM   #8 (permalink)
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And yes - I feel like I'm going to have to expand on this thread - not necessarily even with the live stuff first. There are a lot of side projects and things that the band did, even one where all four were the backing band to "The Dude Of Life", Steve Pollak on his album. Additionally, I was torn as to whether or not I should include the album Trampled By Lambs and Pecked by the Doves which was Trey Anastasio and Tom Marshall (who penned many of Phish's lyrics) performing as a duo in early-ish versions of MANY Phish songs.

Plus, some of their solo stuff...and Mike Gordon's albums with Leo Kottke...really seem to be worth mention.

Ah, I don't mind the term jam band enthusiast all that much, really. I do love my jam bands, and don't really see that as an awful thing.
I actually got to see Dude of Life play the weekend of Camp Oswego at a separate festival about 100 miles from the event. None of Phish were backing him, contrary to rumors floating around the crowd that persisted all the way up until the encore. Sadly, as a live experience, he kinda' came off as a lounge tribute to the band. I don't know if that was his intent.

I think my favorite of all the adjunct Phish ensemble has to be Jazz Mandolin Project. I've seen them a lot, about half of the shows with Fishman and half without, but it was seeing them with him that led me to understand what a little badass he is. We actually took him out and got him very...very... wasted one night after a show he did with them in town. Incriminating photos may be available.

A little off topic, but I'm curious to know, being the Trey phan that you are, what do you think of Surrender to the Air? I feel it's still an album that's off a lot of people's radar and I still throw it on once and a while, with my reaction is still , to this day, along the lines of, "...whoah", no matter how many times I listen to it.
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Old 12-12-2010, 07:15 PM   #9 (permalink)
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I just have to say that I glanced over this thread and just had to listen to 'Fuck Your Face'. Best Phish song I've ever heard!
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Old 12-13-2010, 01:11 AM   #10 (permalink)
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I actually got to see Dude of Life play the weekend of Camp Oswego at a separate festival about 100 miles from the event. None of Phish were backing him, contrary to rumors floating around the crowd that persisted all the way up until the encore. Sadly, as a live experience, he kinda' came off as a lounge tribute to the band. I don't know if that was his intent.

I think my favorite of all the adjunct Phish ensemble has to be Jazz Mandolin Project. I've seen them a lot, about half of the shows with Fishman and half without, but it was seeing them with him that led me to understand what a little badass he is. We actually took him out and got him very...very... wasted one night after a show he did with them in town. Incriminating photos may be available.

A little off topic, but I'm curious to know, being the Trey phan that you are, what do you think of Surrender to the Air? I feel it's still an album that's off a lot of people's radar and I still throw it on once and a while, with my reaction is still , to this day, along the lines of, "...whoah", no matter how many times I listen to it.
I am definitely a lover of his Surrender to the Air project and often share the "...whoa" reaction. I'm not well-versed on jazz by any means, but when I listen to it, it does tend to be of the more free form variety. I was saddened when told by a friend that it just sounded like "noise" to them. It's actually very perfectly balanced, layered, and thought out, I think. They aren't all just trying to get the most in - they're fitting into the pieces where they're needed, and all superb instrumentalists.

I don't know if Dude of Life was trying to sound like a Phish lounge tribute act. Poor guy, haha. He, like Marshall, wrote a bunch of Phish songs (well, not nearly as much contribution as Marshall, actually) but whenever people hear them, they're bound to be familiar with Phish's work - or else they'd not have heard of the Dude of Life - and consider them "Phish's songs". His second album, if I remember correctly, doesn't have Phish as his backing band. I know that Trey and Mike appear on the album, and maybe Fishman too, but I don't think Page plays at all on it.

That is completely awesome that you got Fishman drunk. He seems like such a fun little guy, although in documentaries and interviews, the other guys all definitely sell him out as the trouble maker. He used to miss loads of shows or some in late for shows a lot when Phish was in their early stages, and apparently he and Trey used to fight - like, physically fight - a bit. AND yes, Jazz Mandolin Project is very nice to listen to - although I believe I only have two or three live recordings in my tapes.

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I just have to say that I glanced over this thread and just had to listen to 'Fuck Your Face'. Best Phish song I've ever heard!
Very glad that you enjoyed "**** Your Face"! It really isn't that indicative of Phish's music as a whole, but they do have their share of interesting, more heavy-type songs from time to time.
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