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Backtracking: Phish, Junta (1989)

July 28th, 2014 | Posted by Philip J Reed in backtracking

Phish, Junta (1989)

Have a cup of coffee and catch your breath.

Track List:

  • Fee
  • You Enjoy Myself
  • Esther
  • Golgi Apparatus
  • Foam
  • Dinner and a Movie
  • Divided Sky
  • David Bowie
  • Fluffhead
  • Fluff’s Travels
  • Contact

A while back I thought about doing a series where I’d reappraise each R.E.M. album in order. Not just “hey, this one reminds me of such-and-such…” but actually taking the time to listen critically to every song, in sequence, and see what I come up with when I need to actively discuss them rather than passively listen to them.

I still want to do that, and I’d be shocked if I don’t, but a few weeks ago another of my favorite bands, Phish, released a new album, which I’ve been listening to endlessly. It got me in the mood to listen to their older stuff, and that, in turn made me decide to start with this band instead.

A quick note about this series in general: every official release will be covered, in sequence, with a few exceptions. Archival releases, rarities albums, live albums, EPs, non-album singles, and compilations will not be covered. At least, not unless I have a good reason to cover them. For instance, I do want to cover Phish’s two “traditional” live albums, because they contain a lot of important songs to discuss that aren’t available in official, studio form.

It’ll be relatively rare that I have to break one of these rules for meaningful reasons, and I have them in place to keep me focused and not getting tripped up having to talk about the same song several times without having anything new to say. Also, I’ll be going with original releases rather than expanded bonus additions or anything like that. You know…until I decide to break that rule, too.

So, Junta. It’s Phish’s first studio album, and a good portion of fans will tell you that you shouldn’t really be listening to Phish’s studio albums. They’re a live band, and while they’ve certainly earned that reputation, the idea that you shouldn’t familiarize yourself with their studio output is, to be fair, bullshit.

You’ll never hear the sprawling, energetic sweep of a truly great jam come out of a formal recoding session, but if you’re looking for a sprawling, truly great jam, then you’re missing what the studio can offer: Focus. Precision. Clean audio.

Phish’s songs — on this album and elsewhere — do tend to fall into two main categories: the ones best live, and the ones best in the studio. The bigger and looser the composition, the more likely it’s going to be best as a live experience. The smaller and tighter the composition, the more likely it’s going to be a better studio track.

I think a lot of fans were disappointed by the fact that Phish’s early albums were basically collections of songs that would become — or already were — great fodder for concerts, whereas later they were more focused on crafting small, sometimes intimate tunes that would potentially bring raging live sets to a dead stop.

There’s a whole debate to be had there, and it would be an interesting one. Perhaps people would be more forgiving of their studio output if the tiny studio tunes stayed there. Instead, as Phish added more and more two-minute ballads and pop tunes to their catalogue, fans knew that appearances from “The Curtain (With),” “Stash,” “Run Like an Antelope,” and other heavy hitters would grow necessarily rarer.

But we’re getting somewhat ahead of ourselves. Here, in 1989, when Junta was a simple cassette tape poised to launch one hell of a musical career, we open with a love triangle involving a Buddhist weasel, a villainous chimpanzee, and a pox-stricken gospel singer. And it’s fucking adorable.

FEE

As a formal introduction to Phish, “Fee” does a pretty good job. It doesn’t give even a hint of their improvisational prowess, or the complexity of their compositional skills, but it does paint a great portrait of their sweetness, their sense of humor, and their musicianship. While none of the band members get to show off their particular skills, each of them plays an instrumental role in the song’s atmosphere, and that’s what reframes this silly fairytale as something worth taking seriously.

When people criticize Phish’s lyrics, they kind of miss the point. With only a few exceptions, their songs aren’t about what the words are saying, but how they make you feel when you hear them. This is also what made, and continues to make, Phish such an effective live band. Maybe you can’t make out the words from the back row, but at the same time, you always know what the song is saying.

“Fee” is a nice, gentle, sunny groove, with a reassuring chorus that means nothing. Its story is barely a story at all; it’s a tale of love and triumph that doesn’t include much of either. Characters are introduced, there’s a scuffle, and the song ends. But, damn, is it a perfect opener.

YOU ENJOY MYSELF

After that we move into Phish’s unofficial anthem, “You Enjoy Myself.” This one I’m not as inclined to be generous toward. The reason is that as much of a raging monster this song becomes in concert, on disc it’s…kinda worthless. The energy simply isn’t there, and while this is (chronologically) our first taste of Trey Anastasio’s incredible compositional talent — and this composition is incredible — it’s the kind of song that absolutely relies on the thrill of a live concert experience.

In fact, “You Enjoy Myself” feels here almost like An Elevator Music Tribute to Phish, and the absence of the song’s signature vocal jam doesn’t help matters. There’s really no reason to listen to this one instead of any given live performance (and we’ll come to one before long) as the mix is uninspired, the energy lacking all around, and the precision of the performance rendered redundant by just how many easily accessible live versions there are today.

When Junta was the only game in town, I’m sure this was great to have. But it’s been a long time since then, and unlike some of Anastasio’s other layered masterworks, the studio doesn’t so much provide a pristine listening experience as it does reveal the limitations of a band that hadn’t yet learned what to do without an audience.

ESTHER

Then we move on to “Esther,” which is probably one of my least favorite Phish songs overall. That’s not to say it’s one of their worst songs (it’s not even close…); it’s just that its length makes it stand out to me as a real drag.

On Junta it just sounds out of place. Its lyrics are still silly, but carry an air of self-importance that wears thin far too soon. In concert it’s even worse, as Trey tends to forget the lyrics regularly, and the lack of improvisation means that a live version with even a single flub is inferior to the already quite dull album version.

Musically, I admit, the song is quite good. It glides effortlessly through several movements, some of them pretty lovely, but, ultimately, it’s dragged down by the long, spoken-word narrative that’s been nailed to it. Phish has managed passive profundity over the course of its career, but they fall short when they reach for it. And there’s really no better definition of “reaching for it” than this aimless tale of an innocent little girl and her puppet finding themselves buffeted by the world around them.

It’s sort of a mix of the winding narrative of “Fee” with the compositional confidence of “You Enjoy Myself,” but it definitely amounts to less than the sum of its parts. I really wish we’d have gotten a studio version of “The Curtain (With)” or “Harry Hood” in order to showcase what the band could do with complicated material, or even “Slave to the Traffic Light,” which is gentle and gorgeous enough that the isolation of a studio could actually add a welcome chill to the song.

Instead, we got “Esther.” Oh well. You can’t win them all.

GOLGI APPARATUS

Next is “Golgi Apparatus,” an absolutely perfect live set-closer or encore. It’s a loud, deceptively complicated rocker with an irresistible refrain. (If there’s a man out there who can keep from joining in for that final “I SAW YOU!!” I don’t want to meet him.) Here, though, it’s pretty limp. This is another song that relies on live energy, and it doesn’t have much to offer otherwise.

It’s especially strange hearing this early, slow version, after listening over and over again to the screaming live renditions. This one feels almost like a lullaby, but it’s certainly not bad, and because it’s short, it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

It’s also our first exposure to Phish as pop-musicians. “Fee” is a bit long for radio, and in 1989 you were never going to catch anyone playing “You Enjoy Myself” or “Esther,” but the familiar verse / chorus / breakdown / chorus structure foreshadows the band’s later, more serious attempts at popular accessibility.

Jon Fishman on drums does get to cut impressively loose here, and that’s nice, but beyond that, there’s little to say. It’s gone almost as soon as it arrives, and that’s neither a particularly good nor bad thing. As much as I support the idea of taking studio Phish seriously, at least half of Junta provides a good argument that some of it is worth ignoring.

FOAM


And then there’s “Foam.” This is the first song we get that justifies its existence both in and out of the studio.

Of course, its success depends entirely upon how appealing the central groove is to you. Personally, I love it, and it’s a great, early showcase for Mike Gordon’s bass and Page McConnell’s piano. The disorienting, simple melody seems to crawl from instrument to instrument, pulling your attention along with it, working like a camera to guide your focus.

This is actually one of my favorites on Junta, because even though it absolutely thrives in the live setting, “Foam” is a great, bizarre, jazzy interlude on disc. It demonstrates what Phish can do, but it neither resorts to silliness or self-importance. Its lyrics might be utter nonsense, but that just helps to reinforce the idea that it’s not their content but rather their context that matters.

“Foam” is a lovely experiment in atmospheric development, and while it doesn’t cycle through different moods the way this album’s true masterpiece does, it’s a great, rare, dual showcase for Gordon and McConnell, and a performance that absolutely stands on its own merits. I really, really love “Foam.”

DINNER AND A MOVIE

“Dinner and a Movie,” by contrast, stands on no merits. It’s another pop-tune, but far less radio friendly than “Golgi Apparatus,” and as far as I can tell the only time it’s ever worth hearing is in any of Phish’s live shows with a horn section. In that capacity it functions well as a bouncy, brassy warmup. In any other, it’s…just kind of irritating.

This song is actually one that comes from The Dude of Life, a friend of (and early contributor to) the band. The fact that “Dinner and a Movie” is his representation on Junta is puzzling, as certainly most of his other songs from the time (“Halley’s Comet,” “I Didn’t Know,” “Suzy Greenburg”) would have been far more welcome inclusions.

At the very least, it’s interesting to hear “Dinner and a Movie” roll through its several short movements, as it seems like Phish is trying to figure out how many distinct ways this song can be annoying.

DIVIDED SKY

And yet I would listen to “Dinner and a Movie” ten thousand times if it meant I could hear “Divided Sky” after every one. “Divided Sky” is — and may always be — the band’s singular, most enduring compositional masterpiece. And while live versions indeed have greater energy and sharper spikes of experimentation, the version here on Junta is just absolutely fantastic.

In fact, I very rarely dig Junta out. When I do, it’s because I’m dying to hear this. While it’s still one of Phish’s most popular live songs, the studio version really allows the musicianship and complexity to shine, as well as the song’s inspirations to come through. Frank Zappa is a pretty clear one — particularly on the early section in which the song’s melody is played backward and then reversed to play properly, as a musical palindrome — and I can’t be the only one who hears Duane Allman in Trey’s first major solo.

The studio also allows Phish to flesh out the song in ways that it couldn’t on stage. The opening sweep is performed on an acoustic guitar, while for most of the piece Trey plays an electric. Live this would have required some pre-planned and clunky instrument swapping. Here, it’s just part of the experience. The twinkling bells in the opening also add a nice, heavenly flourish, rooting this song firmly in the big, blue sky, where it belongs.

I cannot say enough good about “Divided Sky.” It’s one of the single most impressive songs I’ve ever heard, and I can’t imagine I’ll ever get tired to listening to it. The moods range from curiosity to trepidation to swirling triumph, and every movement feeds naturally from the one that came before and into the one that follows. Once the band swings into the final, long, glorious stretch, heralded by the chunky pound of Page’s keys and Trey’s prolonged, electric shriek, we ride along into absolute musical bliss.

It’s a perfect showcase for every member of the band, and functions as an absolutely brilliant, incredible achievement. Enough cannot be said about what a perfect listening experience “Divided Sky” constitutes, and it single-handedly justifies all of Junta‘s flat missteps for me.

DAVID BOWIE

“David Bowie” doesn’t reach anywhere near the highs of “Divided Sky,” and its inclusion here is a bit puzzling to me. While I certainly prefer it to, say, “Esther” or “Dinner and a Movie,” I at least understand what the band was hoping to achieve with those.

In this case, though, “David Bowie” is a jam vehicle, and little more. The composed sections don’t do much other than provide a framework for experimentation, and very little experimentation happens here in this studio version. There’s some screaming and moaning and a bit of impressive guitar work, but it’s all just there, and none of it helps the song to earn its pudgy running time.

A clean version of “David Bowie” is self-defeating. It’s a song that’s designed to reach dark, uncharted, filthy places, so a studio version that jogs in place seems particularly pointless to me. It’s far too repetitive and dull, absolutely killing the momentum established by “Divided Sky.”

They can’t all be winners, but the studio version of “David Bowie” is a pretty clear loser.

FLUFFHEAD

We do get another big triumph before the end, though. “Fluffhead” and “Fluff’s Travels” are actually the same song. They’re both fully composed, but “Fluffhead” contains the “song” portion of the song, while “Fluff’s Travels” is a complex suite that builds out of it, containing several miniature songs of its own.

“Fluffhead” has a catchy, camp-fire singalong feel to it, and it’s very effective in that regard. Its silliness feels like a shared hallucination, and in the studio the acoustic melody makes it downright intimate.

Live “Fluffhead” is always a treat, as, like “Divided Sky,” you may know exactly what you’ll be getting for the next ten minutes or so, but you also know that not a single second of that will be dull. The real meat, however, is here:

FLUFF’S TRAVELS

It’s a little odd that “Fluffhead” is separated into two songs on the disc (and on the original cassette) since the split is both unnatural and unnecessary. In fact, on a later remastering the two are joined into a single track, which makes much more sense. (And makes its appearance during a shuffle much more welcome.)

While it doesn’t reach the same level of achievement as “Divided Sky,” I would say that “Fluffhead” / “Fluff’s Travels” proves the band’s abilities just as well. From a harmless, jaunty singalong through some dark, deep, unnerving territories and then back up again for a rousing climax, “Fluffhead” / “Fluff’s Travels” achieves what “Esther” does not: cohesion. The music and lyrics compliment each other and enhance the experience, rather than hamstring one another.

“Esther” may unquestionably have the “better” tale to tell, but “Fluffhead” / “Fluff’s Travels” is a far more rewarding journey, with a tiny, confrontational tune called “Clod” embedded in the latter, making for a nice, abrasive bonus along the way. “Clod” also serves as a great reminder of words being less important than atmosphere, as the deliberately nonsensical lyrics feel not only urgent, but downright threatening.

We finish “Fluff’s Travels” on a rousing major-key celebration, which feels very much like a welcome capper to the long, imperfect, musical journey that is Junta.

CONTACT

Which makes “Contact” the de facto encore, and it’s a great one. It’s a hilarious, simple love letter to road safety and / or the ramblings of a disturbed, slickly crooning simpleton.

It’s also our first exposure to bassist Mike Gordon’s songwriting, which always has a strong (sometimes too strong) comic bent. Here, it’s kept in check by how downright infectious “Contact” is. It’s the kind of song that isn’t likely to impress the first time you hear it, but you’ll catch yourself singing it later, dig it out for another spin later still, and eventually finding yourself in love.

It’s the orphan puppy at the end of the album, and while it’s a bit mangy and obviously unintelligent…can you really resist those eyes?

Really?

With that, we come to the end of Junta. It’s probably, overall, my least favorite Phish album. Or maybe the next one is. That’s not to say that the quality of the songs themselves is low, but rather the specific studio performances captured here aren’t as much worth hearing as those of later tunes would be.

“Fee,” “Foam,” “Divided Sky” and “Contact” all represent must-hear experiences, though, so it can’t be written off completely. It’s just that Phish didn’t quite yet know what to do with its time in the studio.

Stick around, though. We’re going to learn together.

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4 Responses

  • Kevin Loy says:

    You’ll never hear the sprawling, energetic sweep of a truly great jam come out of a formal recoding session

    Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis and Tony Williams’ Lifetime (to name a few) all have recordings which attest to the contrary…but I digress.

    True story: I’ve never been able to get into Phish.

    It wasn’t for a lack of trying. The first, and most notable, attempt came from the drummer in a band I led 11 years ago (time flies). Jay was, for lack of a better term, a Phish Phanatic: the sort of individual who would (and did, as I recall) drive halfway up the east coast to Vermont for a Phish concert. He would often rhapsodize at length (if allowed to do so) about what he felt to be their qualities, and he went as far as to make copies of Junta and Lawn Boy for both myself and Tom (the guitarist in this particular band) as part of our intended indoctrination. So, I took the CDs home, listened to them several times, and…was at an absolute loss to see what was special about them. Granted, I didn’t find them to be as insanely somniferous as the Grateful Dead (another band which gets hyped in the whole “don’t bother with their studio albums” argument, an argument I refuse to accept since I refuse to accept the existence of “red light fever”), but I just failed to see what was special. I wasn’t alone either – following the next rehearsal, I had a lengthy conversation with Tom (while listening to the albums *again*, no less) about our respective inabilities to understand why people absolutely worshipped this band.

    I think part of the issue, for me at least, is I’m not particularly enamored with the improvisational capabilities of rock musicians. This might be an ironic stance for someone who is often classified as a rock musician to make (although I don’t feel I fit particularly well into that category), but to me, most good rock music is about immediacy and brevity. When you breach that demarcation, you need some sense of development, some realization that the improvisation(s) isn’t just an ancillary component, but is an integral development within the performance. Very little rock improvisation, in my opinion, fits that description.

    That having been said, though, since you’re writing about Junta (and, I imagine, Lawn Boy next), I guess I should dig up my copy of it to see if my opinion has changed since I last heard it.

    • Kevin Loy says:

      …and that’s what I get for not properly closing the italics code at the end of the quote I cited…I should have just used quotation marks, heh.

    • Philip J Reed says:

      Oh god, yeah, I should have phrased that better. I meant it specific to Phish. There absolutely _are_ great studio jams, and I’ve been thinking about putting together a top 10 of my favorites. So…yeah, fair point, for sure.

      As much as I love Phish today, it took me a really long time to get into them. I’m sure I’ll discuss that a bit when we get a few albums into this series, as those contain the songs that “clicked” for me.

      I’m not sure “rock” is the best descriptor for Phish. It’s not wrong, but it’s potentially misleading. “Progressive rock” gets a bit closer, or “jazz fusion.” But I know what you mean. Neil Young (in his heyday) fits for me what you’re describing in terms of rock improv that’s still straight-up rock. Phish, especially at this stage in their development, is way over on the Zappa side of the spectrum.

      And I too kinda hate the Grateful Dead. Never been able to get that one to click. (Though, I confess, I do like some of their studio stuff.)

      • Kevin Loy says:

        I became curious when you mentioned “progressive rock” in your response, as it certainly wasn’t a category that I thought of when remembering Phish…but sure enough, other people must feel that way as well, since I see that progarchives.com has a listing for Phish (under “prog-related”). One thing I *did* notice while perusing their entry on that site is that Michael Ray, who performed with Sun Ra on most of his late-70s albums (a very highly regarded period of his work), was part of the “Giant County Horns” which appear on A Live One.

        …It looks like I’ll have to give Phish another chance, heh.



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