Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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Phish, A Picture of Nectar

So maybe I could be a fly…

Track List:

  • Llama
  • Eliza
  • Cavern
  • Poor Heart
  • Stash
  • Manteca
  • Guelah Papyrus
  • Magilla
  • The Landlady
  • Glide
  • Tweezer
  • The Mango Song
  • Chalk Dust Torture
  • Faht
  • Catapult
  • Tweezer Reprise

Hello! It sure has been a while since I’ve done this. Forgive me; I’m still getting used to being able to write about things I like again. And, hey, A Picture of Nectar is a thing I like!

My previous installments about Junta and Lawn Boy involved a lot of hesitation to embrace the albums completely, but here, for the first time in Phish’s studio history, the balance tips. For my money, A Picture of Nectar contains more to recommend it than to detract from it, and it’s the first sustained evidence that they could function as an effective studio band. (Their legacy as a live band was never in question.)

Having said that, it’s also their most scattershot album to date. The band tried everything they could to find their studio footing once and for all…and it’s an exercise under which you can feel the album straining. As such, there are a lot of skippable tracks, but when the band hit upon something that worked — which it did quite often here — it really worked, and a few of these tracks are among the best they’ve ever recorded.

A Picture of Nectar is also the first time that the band’s playfulness was captured for the home listening audience, and it’s more successful for it. When the band has fun, we have fun, and A Picture of Nectar is absolutely a portrait of a band having fun.

We’re still a couple of albums away from Phish truly delivering a thorough studio masterpiece, but with this album they learn both how to do it, and how not to do it. It’s an experiment that’s thrilling and frustrating, but moreso the former, and if you don’t mind trimming a few of the lesser tracks from your playlist, A Picture of Nectar gets even stronger.

Llama


Speaking of lesser tracks!

…okay, okay, “Llama” isn’t really that bad. But compared to A Picture of Nectar‘s true accomplishments, “Llama” feels like filler.

Choose not to compare it and you end up with a pretty fun — if shallow — rocker with some incredible percussion and a great, swirling synth to carry it along. The lyrics are deliberately impenetrable (people debate to this day what the chorus even is), and putting this at the very front of the album feels like a promise of incoherence to come. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if it’s not your thing, you may want to skip ahead a few years and pick up a different Phish album.

The band is experimenting, and figuring out what works is neither an easy process nor, necessarily, a crowd-pleasing one. “Llama” lets listeners know that whatever’s to come may be fun, and may be catchy, but it won’t necessarily be polished. In a live setting, “Llama” is an energetic palate cleanser. On disc, it’s practically a dare to keep listening.

Eliza

…which is what makes it odd that it’s followed up immediately by the quiet, pretty instrumental “Eliza.” In fact, “Eliza” is the second part of the mission statement of A Picture of Nectar. If “Llama” disarmed you, “Eliza” tries to convince you that it’s worth pushing through the rougher patches. You just might find something beautiful, wedged between two monsters.

And it’s right; there’s a lot of beauty to find here. But I do have to admit that “Eliza” is kind of empty. It sounds pretty, and yet also sounds like nothing at all. It’s there…an airy coda to its rampaging predecessor, but it doesn’t register to me the way some of Phish’s other “pretty” interludes do (see “Bliss” or “The Inlaw Josie Wales”).

It’s there. It’s fine. And it lets you know that the whole album isn’t “Llama.” Mission accomplished.

Cavern

“Cavern” is one of those Phish songs that all of the fans know and seem to love, but which never really clicked with me. It’s not awful, and I can appreciate a lot of things about it (read on!), but its popularity and frequency of appearances in setlists always confused me.

Wait, have I been down on all of these songs so far? I really am a miserable human being, aren’t I?

So, okay, fine, it doesn’t work for me on the whole. Ignore that small detail, though, and I appreciate how well it manages to take nonsense lyrics and weave what feels like an actual story. It’s a bit of an illusion, admittedly, as it relies on the instrumentation to build the atmosphere, set the pacing, suggest narrative climax where — strictly speaking — there is none, but that’s sort of the point of songwriting in general, so it’s no kind of cheat.

The plodding rhythm, the echoing drums, the repetitive grind of the groove…everything serves to underscore an idea, an atmosphere, a setting. And, largely, it works. “Cavern” is a journey I’d have a hard time summarizing, but it’s one I can feel.

Interestingly, “Cavern” isn’t the only song on the album that does this; “Stash” also spins a tale of nonsense that seems important in a way that transcends — or at least has nothing to do with — words as we understand them. But we’ll come to that soon enough.

The other thing the song does well is its triumphant concluding verse — from which the album takes its name — repeated with increasing enthusiasm as long as it takes to really sell the infectiousness. It’s a great conclusion to an otherwise fairly pedestrian track, and it’s why the song works so well (and so often) as a set closer.

On a live note, a horn section enhanced the rave-up swirl at the end of the song several times throughout the band’s live history, and that’s a nice variant to seek out if you’re interested. Personally I do think the brass adds something to the excitement, but the vocals do a good enough job of selling the triumph on their own, so it’s not a make/break situation; it’s just a pretty cool thing to hear after you’ve experienced the hornless version so many times.

Poor Heart

A simple bluegrass ditty by bassist Mike Gordon about somebody swiping his tape recorder. It’s…man, I am not doing a good job of selling you on this album yet, am I?

It’s not bad. It’s fun. It’s a bit of a one-note experiment, but it’s brief and toe-tapping enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

But…well, that’s it. It’s just sort of there, and it’s nowhere near Mike Gordon’s best composition or the band’s best dalliance with bluegrass. (See the next album’s “Fast Enough for You” for that honor.)

Stash

Now we’re talking. Honestly, don’t the opening notes convince you enough of that on their own?

“Stash” is just…man.

Just…just listen to it. “Stash” is fun. “Stash” is dark. “Stash” is silly and urgent and an incredible meld of composition and musicianship. “Stash” is Phish. And while I’m sure others would point to something like “You Enjoy Myself” as their singular example of what the band is, I think I’d have to point to “Stash.”

It’s an absolutely perfect listening experience. And, yes, it’s a song that takes on new life again and again on stage, with long jams teased out of it unexpectedly or just fiery straight versions played to audiences lucky enough to be there and feed off of it, but its studio version, I think, merits attention.

This is a chance to appreciate the song’s twisting melodies, its tense stop/starts, its masterful interplay between instruments which seem to having important conversations of their own — certainly more important than anything the lyrics have to say.

And yet the lyrics feel like they are saying something important. The story they weave — whatever it’s about, whatever happens in it — has a sense of significance, of weight, of value. And while the lyrics on paper, with all their talk of tunic yankings and solar garlic, seem frivolous, in performance they’re anything but. I couldn’t tell you what anything here is supposed to mean, but I could sure tell you how much it feels like they have meaning.

It’s evocative. What you don’t understand, you still experience. Trey’s guitar work in particular is thrilling. It evokes an endless rush of panic. Near misses. Narrow escapes. The sense that you reach the end of each bar alive by the skin of your teeth.

It’s just all around great, and I think it says something that a song best experienced live is still so solid in the studio, without the energy of the crowd to bolster it, without the benefit of nightly surprise and experimentation, without the freedom of slipping into and out of other songs at will.

“Stash” is one of my favorite compositions, and one of my favorite examples of studio Phish. It doesn’t capture the band’s experimentation, but it does capture their raw, burning power when they’re at their cohesive best, and this one goes down in history books for me.

Manteca

Here’s a great joke: a band well known for their inventive covers of other people’s work finally records a song they didn’t write (one by Dizzy Gillespie) and it’s just them repeating some nonsense that sounds vaguely like the original song.

Ha ha.

Guelah Papyrus

The best song on the album, and one of Phish’s best ever.

Listening now I don’t know why I didn’t list this along with “Cavern” and “Stash” as a nonsense song that still tells a story. Maybe it feels less to me like a story than an evocative scene. Maybe it feels less like nonsense. Whatever the reason, “Guelah Papyrus” seems like a truly unique composition…one I’d have a lot of trouble finding direct comparison to.

It’s lovely. It’s gorgeous. It’s rocky and smooth. It’s got an incredibly addictive beat that often finds me playing the song several times in a row. And its instrumental section manages to feel like an organic part of the composition in a way that it actually isn’t. (It was originally an unrelated tune called “The Asse Festival.” So, yeah, the title “Guelah Papyrus” is a definite trade upward.)

It meanders and it drives. It lounges and it hurtles. It spouts nonsense and suggest profundity. It’s a truly great song, and one of the few that I’ve always wanted to hear in concert and never, so far, have been fortunate enough to catch. It’s also, along with “Stash,” evidence that Phish was finding out how to use the studio…how to enhance their compositions rather than distract from them, how to achieve a kind of musical precision they couldn’t rely on otherwise, with embellishments like the echo effect applied to the backing vocals filling out the song in ways that feel natural and not calculated.

I love “Guelah Papyrus.” If I were able to take only one studio Phish song to a desert island with me, it might well be this one. Which is fitting, as the lyrics seem to outline the spidering thoughts of some endlessly drifting, hopeless protagonist who crossed the wrathful, mysterious Guelah herself.

Who is she? What did she do? The chorus claims that “this is the work of Guelah Papyrus,” but what is her work?

It doesn’t matter. What matters is how it affects our singer.

And us.

And it affects me in ways that I’m almost glad I have trouble expressing; that means they stay specific to me.

Magilla

Our first Page McConnell composition, and by no means his best. Page is my favorite member of Phish — his keys anchoring nearly all of my favorite songs and favorite jams — but there’s no denying that he was a bit uncertain of his talents for much of the band’s life.

Later compositions would be marked improvements, but it wasn’t until he embarked on a career outside of Phish (first with Vida Blue, then under his own name) that he really found his voice as a songwriter.

Still, “Magilla” is good. It’s a minor, jazzy interlude that doesn’t do anything wrong, but definitely fails to live up to the rest of the album. It’s also disappointing that the piano-heavy song by the band’s pianist is entirely bowled over by a far superior piano song that takes over as soon as this one ends.

The Landlady


As “Guelah Papyrus” contained “The Asse Festival,” “The Landlady” would go on to be absorbed by “Punch You in the Eye,” a live-only song that fairly gracelessly plopped this tune into its middle when it needed an interlude.

That’s kind of disappointing, as “The Landlady” feels to me like it deserves to be more than breathing room in a different song. On its own, here, in the studio, it’s a great, rollicking salsa that manages to feel like more of a successful genre experiment than “Poor Heart” or “Magilla” did.

Those songs achieved what they set out to do — chart some more sonic territory for the band — but “The Landlady” succeeds at being…sort of great. Not complex, not revolutionary, but great within its own tight boundaries. And it’s an excellent spotlight for both Page’s nimble fingers and Trey’s screaming fretwork. It’s chilly and fiery at once, and it’s one of my favorite studio instrumentals from the band.

Falling where it does on the album, right here in the rough middle, it’s easy to overlook but worth seeking out. It’s a chance to observe the band growing into itself, setting out to dabble and ending up mastering.

“The Landlady” isn’t just a rough Latin sketch…it’s a Phish song. And a good one. “Punch You in the Eye” may have long outlived it, but I really enjoy the evidence that it once had a life of its own.

Glide

“Glide” feels like a novelty song that happens to have some very impressive musicianship behind it, namely in Trey’s guitar line. There’s a nice musical evolution that unfolds behind the simple, repeated lyrics, depositing us in some unexpectedly dark places, but ultimately it’s a trifle. One of many experiments on A Picture of Nectar that you can’t fault the band for trying. But it’s also not something I’d recommend seeking out.

Tweezer

“Tweezer” is mainly an excuse to screw around with a genuinely irresistible hook. On stage, though, it’s massive. Hour-long versions are not uncommon, and it’s right up there with “You Enjoy Myself” and “Mike’s Song” for sheer unpredictability. You may recognize the opening notes, but there’s no chance you’ll predict the song’s journey from there.

And that’s both its biggest claim to fame and its curse. When “Tweezer” starts up live, you know you’re in it for the long haul. End up with a great, inventive version with some playful momentum to keep it going and you’ll probably be pretty happy. But end up with the band struggling to find its footing and you could find yourself listening for a huge chunk of the set to four musicians floundering for cohesion.

It’s a crapshoot, and it’s one I’m never willing to bet on. If I find a recording of a show with a forty-minute “Simple” or “Ghost” or “Split Open and Melt,” I get excited. If I find a recording of a show with a forty-minute “Tweezer,” I worry.

Sure, it could be great. And, let’s be frank here, it often is.

But at least as often, it’s stuck in neutral. And as “Tweezer” doesn’t understand the concept of brevity, it’ll be stuck there for a while.

“Tweezer” rarely kills a night, of course, but it does often, to me, feel like it’s taking up a lot of time that another song could put to better use. When you hear a great “Tweezer” you know it, and it’ll make everything I’m saying here sound more like hogwash than usual. But I don’t think it’s great often enough to claim as much real estate as it does.

The A Picture of Nectar version clocks in at around nine minutes…a hefty chunk of the disc. But this version, while, of course, lacking much room for freeform experimentation and reluctant to stray too far from its backbone, is pretty good. While I don’t seek it out I also never feel compelled to skip it. It’s a nice taste of the band loosening up a bit in the studio, without the structural demands of “Stash,” for instance, keeping them from surprising themselves.

So, no, the studio version of “Tweezer” is not revelatory. But it’s reliable, and I always know it will be worth listening to, which is more than I can say for “Tweezer” in general.

Sue me. I like it.

The Mango Song


Another story song? Maybe. As with “Guelah Papyrus” I can’t really decide, but it’s certainly another great example of how nonsense lyrics bring to life distinct (if not necessarily clear) images, situations, scenes.

The abundance of nonsense lyrics on A Picture of Nectar — and, indeed, in Phish’s general output from the time — can seem more wearying than it actually is; because the songs all sound and feel distinct, and behave in such different ways, and serve such different purposes, it doesn’t feel as though they’re using the same excuse too often. And, what with the deadly serious lyrical approach of the next album (on the whole…), perhaps they were unknowingly getting this out of their systems, making way for the more poetic, Tom Marshall-penned lyrics to come. Those would require respect. (A kind of respect.) Here they were free to be kids.

But I’m getting away from this album, so we’ll complete that thought next time.

“The Mango Song” feels less important than songs like “Stash” or “Guelah Papyrus.” It’s more obviously playful, with the lyrics spinning an obscure joke as opposed to an indistinct adventure. It’s cheery. It’s one long punchline. And it’s fun, like so much of A Picture of Nectar, while also being musically complex.

Vocals overlap to produce a kind of sidelong harmony with conflicting lyrics. Melodies chase each other around. Focus on any one instrument and it will sound like it’s working its own, independent magic, that just so happens to fit what the other instruments are doing around it.

It feels like a beautiful accident, and I mean that as a compliment. The studio version gets at least a few bonus points, as well, for the song’s comparative rarity in the live setting. If you want to hear “The Mango Song,” you’re best served by reaching for the CD. And you’ll be happy if you do, because the performance you’ll find there is pretty great.

Chalk Dust Torture

If you want to hear “Chalk Dust Torture,” though, for God’s sake, ignore this one at all costs. That’s easy to do, because the band’s played it frequently at pretty much every point in its life, leaping between blistering, punchier versions and longer, oddly moody, jammy versions…but even the worst live version is sure to be better than this disappointingly lifeless rendition.

That’s not to say it’s bad, but it sure feels limp. The band doesn’t seem all that engaged with it, really, and it feels like they’re more focused on on hitting their marks than playing with much feeling. But the worst part is Trey’s vocal, which is artificially deepened and/or slowed down for reasons I could not possibly try to explain.

It makes the song nigh unlistenable, and while I understand — and appreciate — the many avenues of studio experimentation A Picture of Nectar immortalizes, this version of “Chalk Dust Torture” is poorer for it. And that’s a shame, because I’d love to have a clean version of this great, bluesy rocker to dip into now and again. Instead we get one that answers the question of whether or not it would be a good use of studio time to make Trey sound like Cookie Monster. (THE ANSWER SOMEHOW IS NO.)

Again, it’s not horrible, but those vocals feel like a painful miscalculation.

But, hey, it’s not the last time we’ll hear “Chalk Dust Torture” on disc…

Faht

Drummer Jon Fishman wrote a song that’s exactly what you think a drummer picking loosely at an acoustic guitar would be. Evidently this was recorded as some kind of joke at the expense of new age music, or something. Needless to say, it’s hilarious.

Wait.

It’s a waste of a track. That one.

Catapult

Okay, yeah, the last stretch of songs on A Picture of Nectar isn’t really notable for anything beyond its willingness to experiment. But “Catapult” is something a little different. It’s only a few seconds long, and it’s just bassist Mike Gordon singing a brief little verse through what sounds like an office PA system, but it’s actually had an interesting journey through the band’s live shows.

Since the album version has no instrumentation behind it, Gordon is free to sing it wherever he pleases, overtop totally unrelated jams or other sonic stretches. And sometimes he does. (Or did. I’m not quite sure when its last appearance was, but it may have been some time ago.) Sometimes Trey does, too.

And so “Catapult” has often become a verse in other songs, just because its lack of anything but a few words to remember means it’s easy to launch into whenever the spirit moves somebody.

But…that’s about it for “Catapult.” Its studio version doesn’t even offer a chance to hear the lyrics more clearly, as the distortion renders it just about as intelligible as you’d be able to glean over crowd noise anyway. It’s kind of cool to experience it in its entirely unassuming, weightless original form, but it’s a novelty, and by no means an intriguing one.

Tweezer Reprise


But we end with something kind of cool! A much shorter reprise of “Tweezer,” with an adjusted and key-shifted riff that heralds a great — if predictable — album-ending cacophony. It’s a nice celebratory end to a collection of songs that deserves to be celebrated, even if many of the individual compositions don’t.

A Picture of Nectar found the band trying everything — with each member contributing something they wrote independently, which I don’t think would happen again until 2004’s Undermind — just to see what would work. The unspoken flipside of that is that they’d also see what didn’t work, and this album immortalizes as much of that stuff as it does the successes.

From here on out, they’d know what they were doing. And we’d get some truly great albums out of that knowledge. Our next entry, Rift, is a brave next step. And if it stumbles, it will be the kind of stumble you can only make after you figure out what you’re doing, and start trying to do it as well as possible.

I’ll see you there in 2029.

Oh, but, man, before I go, I have to say that “Tweezer Reprise” is a really great pun that I never see anyone acknowledge, so let me just acknowledge now that “Tweezer Reprise” is a really, really great pun.

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.

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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