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Backtracking: Phish, Lawn Boy (1990)

September 27th, 2014 | Posted by Philip J Reed in backtracking

Phish, Lawn Boy

We’re all in this together.

Track List:

  • The Squirming Coil
  • Reba
  • My Sweet One
  • Split Open and Melt
  • The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony
  • Bathtub Gin
  • Run Like an Antelope
  • Lawn Boy
  • Bouncing Around the Room

I know it’s been a while since I reviewed Junta for this series, but there’s a good reason for that. I hadn’t heard Lawn Boy in its entirety in several years, and though I remembered it being a strong contender for my least favorite Phish album, rediscovering it has felt great.

I still think it might be my least favorite Phish album, but it has more to offer than I’d originally remembered. Like Junta it suffers from being the product of a band that knew exactly what to do on stage with little to no idea what to do in a studio. Here, however, we do at least see signs of the band exploring the possibilities, with noticeable overdubs, vocal manipulation, and sound effect gimmickry throughout.

It leads to a clumsy product, for sure, with none of the things that I just listed being good things, per se, but it at least gives us an indication that the band knew what Junta lacked, and was taking steps to correct it. They might not be the right steps, just yet, but it’s a solid impulse, and by the time of their very next album, it would pay off in spades. But that’s a story for another day. Let’s take a look, song-by-song, at Lawn Boy.

The Squirming Coil


Foolishly, I thought that “The Squirming Coil” was our studio introduction to the works of longtime Phish lyricist Tom Marshall. It turns out that he received songwriting credit (along with three others) for Junta‘s “Golgi Apparatus.” My mistake, and I would have mentioned it there had I known, but Lawn Boy‘s opening statement is a far better introduction to Marshall’s style. His nonsensical imagery kicked up by his lyrics is sustained and expanded upon by the music behind it, and what might look empty on paper manages to sound grand and profound in the hands of the band.

Unfortunately, “The Squirming Coil,” while a gorgeous, twinkling composition in its own right, fails to come to life here. We’ll eventually get to A Live One, where we can appreciate its true brilliance, but all we really have to admire here is the quiet guitar section toward the front end of the song. Something about the mix of the song overall seems off, because as lovely as Page’s piano sounds when you find it, it feels buried. As does everything apart from the guitar, actually.

It’s hard to say why this one fails to cohere on disc. The vocals are a bit lethargic, but the instrumentation isn’t without heart or energy. I think a lot of the problem is down to the mixing, which seems to throw all of the sound in one corner and makes it difficult to appreciate what the individual members of the band are actually doing.

That being said, the backing vocals during the final “It got away…” section are a nice flourish, and the piano outro — while nowhere near as long or interesting as it would become on stage — is a welcome spotlight for Page’s talents. It also helps that he’s the only one still playing by the end of the song, making me wish even more strongly that the philosophy behind mastering this album wasn’t to bury everything under everything else.

Reba

Still not where we need to be, but “Reba” survives the recording process a bit better than “The Squirming Coil.” The mix still suffers from the fact that everything crowds itself out, but the silly, sunny shuffle of the composition makes it a fun listen anyway. As though to retain balance, however, the backing vocals aren’t nearly as successful as they are on the previous song, and, depending upon my mood while listening, they can actually get pretty annoying.

Compared to almost any given live performance, the tempo of this “Reba” is outright sleepy. It’s not a real problem, especially as the long musical section in the middle gives the band an excuse to relish the unhurried pace. In the live setting, hearing Phish blister through these gorgeous movements is a joy that will never get old, but the quality of the composition and the talent of the musicians — with some excellent, gentle guitar heroics from Trey standing out in particular — makes this calmer performance worth hearing.

In fact, “Reba” is almost good. The instrumental segments certainly are (though still a bit muddy and crowded), but the vocals really let this one down. It’s a problem unique to the studio version, as these are some damned fun lyrics. The overdubbed backing vocals — and a sore lack of emotion in the “bag it, tag it” refrain — fail to pull the necessary weight.

Still, it’s a great singalong, with “take a peak at the cheetah, Reba, cheetah on the prowl” a very satisfying tongue twister. How Trey can retain acrobatic lyrical turns like that over the decades but lose track of simple verse-chorus-verse so easily is truly one of Phish’s great mysteries.

My Sweet One

And now we have our songwriting debut of Jon Fishman, Phish’s incredibly versatile (and game) drummer. It’s also the band’s first outright foray into bluegrass, which is a well they’d tap deeply in a few years.

There’s not much to this one. The extended — though almost disappointingly static — drum solo that opens the song betrays its origins, but overall “My Sweet One” is a fun interlude. The fact that the instruments take turns during the breakdown helps to skirt the problem of Lawn Boy‘s overall mix, and bassist Mike Gordon really sinks his teeth into his share of the lyrics.

It’s a decent interlude, but not much of a song. It’s more of a joke whose punchline is the very telling of the joke itself, and it’s kind of ironic that the simplest composition on the album is also the one that showcases the individual members of the band best.

“My Sweet One” is a short throwaway between longer, more memorable pieces, which is usually the role it occupies in concert as well. But it’s fine enough while it lasts, and it still might be Fishman’s most welcome contribution to the Phish setlist.

Split Open and Melt


Another one that misses the mark, due mainly to the vocal effect on Trey. The echoing grumble suits the mood of the song, but not the actual sound of it, and it’s much more interesting to hear him simply speak-sing his way through the narrative insanity live.

There’s also, of course, the sheer impossibility of a song like “Split Open and Melt” making much of a splash in the studio, as it’s primarily a vehicle for extended, exploratory jamming. The repeating bars at the end of the song make for a great, gorgeous gateway to dark, groovy improv, and here it’s not given anywhere to go. The ghost of a slimy jam shows up toward the end, just in time for the track to end, but I think the band realized what a cheat this is, as they were good enough to serve up a more impressive outro for this song on a future album.

The composed section is still decently impressive here, even if it is rather limp, and it’s nice to hear the brass, which feels like such an integral part of the song when the horns join Phish on stage, but which isn’t particularly missed when they don’t. “Split Open and Melt” is an odd song that seems to carry on a parallel life with itself, versions with and without horns sounding equally “correct.” I honestly can’t decide which version I like better.

Funnily enough, though this is one of the songs for me that makes me excited when I see it in the setlist of a show I haven’t heard yet, I used to hate it. Maybe it was the intentional disorientation of the composition, in a much more aggressive way than, say, “Foam” on Junta. Whatever it was, it took me ages to come around to it. Now that I have, though, it’s one that I’m regularly queuing up on the iPod when I need to take a long drive somewhere.

Which is more than fitting, considering the context of its later appearance. But, again, that’s a story for another day.

The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony

A jaunty, cheery little instrumental that actually serves as one of the album’s highlights. That says more about Lawn Boy as a whole than it does about “The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony” through. While it’s a fun composition and is far too short to be in any danger of wearing out its welcome, there’s also not much to say about it. It’s there, and then it’s over. It provides more of a segue out of the dark dreariness of “Split Open and Melt” than it does its own musical statement, which is fine. It succeeds in its neutrality.

On stage this number became a de facto intro to the completely unrelated song “Suzy Greenberg.” It serves there mainly as a warmup so that when the band launches into the fiery spite of that latter tune, they’re already on the same page. It works fine there, but has never really been notable on its own merits.

With Lawn Boy‘s dearth of identifiable musicianship, though, “The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony” is a ray of quiet light shining through the trees. It’s warm, and it’s welcome, but as soon as we start to appreciate it, it’s gone.

Bathtub Gin

So far I know I’ve been pretty down on Lawn Boy. My praise has been faint, but there are two things I’d like to point out.

Firstly, it’s easier for me to express what I didn’t like, because those things tend to be unique between the songs, and also clearly identifiable. Talking about what I do like, though I try to make an effort to do so, is harder. You can explain what a song does wrong, but you can only really feel what a song does right.

Secondly, “Bathtub Gin” will be the last time on this album that I remain unimpressed. The final three songs are a perfect farewell to the early fumblings of studio Phish…and we’ll get to those soon enough.

For now, we’re mired in overdub hell. For what should have been a charming, boozy singalong, this version of “Bathtub Gin” relies far too heavily on studio trickery, burying rather than enhancing the song under ice cube avalanches and sophomoric flatulence. It’s disappointing, because like “The Squirming Coil,” “Reba,” and “Split Open and Melt,” “Bathtub Gin” is a treat live. Its upbeat, hesitating simplicity is infectious, and it leads to wide-open jams that are typically major-key, danceable rockers.

While we don’t get any kind of jam here, the real disappointment is the fact that the singalong section feels more like an experiment in melodic soundscapes than it does a song.

The first time I saw Trey live, he pulled out an acoustic guitar and played this song as part of his encore. Stripped down to its barest structure, the electricity and charm remained intact. But when you drill it deep into the ground and pile so much sonic silliness on top of it, almost none of that comes through.

“Bathtub Gin” is probably the strongest example yet of a soaring live high doubling as a plodding studio low. But don’t worry…the best is yet to come.

Run Like an Antelope

Now this…this…is great studio Phish. The silly sounds and the overdubs contribute to the feel of the song rather than detract from it, the backing vocals make for a nice late-game treat, and the silliness and musicianship complement each other perfectly.

The mix even sounds better on this one, though it might be an illusion caused by the “stuttering” of the instruments, each leaving gaps through which it becomes easier to hear the others.

Whatever the reason, “Run Like an Antelope” is this album’s “Divided Sky.” Not in the sense that the compositions are anything alike, but in the sense that they both find ways to channel their inherent energies through the different kind of performance that a studio demands.

It also doesn’t hurt that this version of “Run Like an Antelope” does contain a jam, and one that’s rather good. By no means one of the best, but certainly good enough to warrant several listens.

“Run Like an Antelope” is a song built on escalating tension, a simple concept that can be explored in so many different ways. That’s why it’s okay that this version might pale in comparison to so many others…there’s still room — lots of room — for it to succeed on its own merits. And it absolutely does.

This is a great, clean version of an incredible, soaring rocker, and is absolutely a standout track. It doesn’t take much to be the best song on Lawn Boy, so I’ll say instead that it’s still, to this day, one of my favorite Phish studio performances. It’s pure lightning…until it suddenly isn’t. At which point it builds again…and it’s fucking beautiful.

“Run Like an Antelope” is this album’s masterpiece, and required listening.

Lawn Boy

The titular track is the first time we get to hear pianist Page McConnell take the mic, something relatively rare in the studio, especially for a song he didn’t write. He had a much larger role as a vocalist on stage, and, indeed, he has a lovely, adorable voice. “Lawn Boy,” the studio version, doesn’t do him complete justice…but it’s still damned good.

“Lawn Boy” is absolutely Page’s signature spotlight, stepping away from the keys, as he does, to serenade the audience in the sleaziest, slimiest, most beautiful way possible. The fact that Mike Gordon often gets called upon to make up for they absence of keys with some gorgeously understated basswork is just icing on the cake.

Here, the song sounds a little too structured and deliberate. Tom Marshall’s lyrics are excellent, turning a handful of rhymes about synesthesia into a reassuring personal journey, which Page further turns into bizarre, nonsensical flirtation with no-one in particular.

On his most recent acoustic tour, Trey played “Lawn Boy” at a few shows, and explained that the song was originally written as a straightforward jazz number. Then Page sang it, and it was something else entirely. A whole other song that neither he nor Tom Marshall nor anybody else had expected. It was just there, and it was Page’s from that point on.

And I’m glad it is. While this track feels like filler on the very album named after it, it’s pleasant filler, and is still fun to sing along to…even if Page doesn’t have a giddy, swooning audience to sing it to.

Bouncing Around the Room

“Bouncing Around the Room” is a pretty divisive song. While I agree that it often breaks momentum in the live setting — and at the very best just sort of…happens — I think it’s a fantastic studio track, and it’s one that uses the studio (and all of its attendant possibilities for tweaking) to its strong advantage.

On Phish’s next album, A Picture of Nectar, they would demonstrate a clearer understanding of what should (and should not) be done to get their point across in the studio, but “Bouncing Around the Room” suggests that they figured it out at some point during these sessions, and recorded one more track to prove it.

The revolving, layered repetition of the same few bars leads to internally profound places, each of the band members getting an overdue spotlight, Tom Marshall’s lyrics resolving into a hazy thing of inexpressible beauty. It’s the kind of song that only Phish could have handled quite this way, and yet it’s not all that much like Phish.

“Bouncing Around the Room” sounds like a tantalizing outtake from some unreleased sessions, finding the band in a kind of satisfied, masterful lethargy. Searching and circling inward. Finding words they never knew existed for things that had previously been beyond the ability to express.

It’s also a fantastic, radio-friendly pop-song, rightly catchy and impossible to forget. (Or to want to forget.) That, in itself, is an indication of some very good things to come, and if it weren’t for the machine-gun chaos of “Run Like an Antelope,” this would be Lawn Boy‘s easy all-star.

As it is, though, it’s the perfect punctuation to one phrase, and an intriguing start to the next.

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One Response

  • J Dollak says:

    The crowding you’re talking about is a side effect of the band producing themselves. When you have all of the instruments playing together, the sound will fit together live a little better. When you record them, the piano voicings typically overlap with the guitar voicings, the bass drum and the bass guitar overlap. Normally, a skilled mixer is able to do some clever work to make the parts stop piling up on certain frequencies. I an imagine that they heard an engineer do some of these alterations, and felt like they were being robbed of their tone.

    I come back to the studio version of Split Open & Melt pretty often. I love the horn arrangement, and Trey’s rhythm tone at the beginning.
    I also like the studio Bathtub Gin. There’s a sound to the groove that almost sounds like toy percussion was used. I also like how Mike’s vocal toward the end is buried really heavily. Once you start to notice it, you can’t miss it.

    Strangely, the one track on the album I really don’t care for is Bouncing Around the Room. I like the song. I really like the version on A Live One. But this version feels a little slower. The groove doesn’t bounce as much as the live version. The slightly slower pace makes the vocal feel a little lethargic. They still nail all of the harmonies nicely, and Page’s piano twinkles nicely.

    My expectations of studio Phish are best demonstrated with how they handled Story of the Ghost; the albums give a template for the core of the song, they aren’t about demonstrating the directions the songs can go in. I think that’s why this version of Bouncing disappoints me. It’s almost exactly the same… just not performed as well.



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