The conventional wisdom on Phish’s studio albums has been that they just aren’t very good. Weirdly, this narrative has come from two distinct camps. The critical community has generally not been in tune with their stew of funk, prog-rock, bluegrass, jazz, and whatever else the band feels like trying. There’s also been plenty of excoriation (sometimes justified) for the band’s lackluster attention to songcraft. The other camp that denigrates the band’s studio efforts is its hardcore fanbase, the people who absolutely insist that the only way to have the true Phish experience is to see them live.
Across the 25-year expanse of Phish’s 11 (and with Fuego, it’s an even dozen) studio albums, plenty of evidence can be found to support both of these viewpoints. The best versions of the band’s sprawling, epic jam pieces are generally not found on the studio records, where the group is hemmed in by concerns about length, a lack of audience energy, and the difficulty of getting that one epic take where everything in the jam works perfectly. And it’s true that despite the band’s deep and abiding love of funk music, the studio versions of their funkier tracks often seem cold and clinical. When the band turns quiet and emotional musically, they’re sometimes stymied by their tendency towards awkward or silly lyrics.
But there’s no real evidence that Phish was ever a band that was phoning it in in the studio, just putting out product to facilitate another tour. While it’s true that there probably isn’t a stone cold classic album in the band’s discography (most likely candidates Rift, Billy Breathes, and Farmhouse all have their flaws), there’s strong material to be found on each of their albums, and they’ve generally been very listenable.
That brings us to Fuego, the band’s first studio effort in five years. Last time around, the band climaxed 2009’s Joy with “Time Turns Elastic”, a 13-minute prog-rock epic that hasn’t improved with age (According to setlist.fm, the band hasn’t even broken it out live since 2010) or with the addition of a full symphony orchestra. This time, the band opens with the album’s longest song, “Fuego”, nine minutes-plus and full of non-sequitur lyrics delivered in sing song harmonies with late ‘90s hip-hop vocal rhythms. Unlike “Time Turns Elastic”, “Fuego” has no pretensions to being an epic. Instead, it’s just this side of ridiculous, as the band boasts of “Rolling in my Fuego / I do my own stunts”, being the World’s Greatest Dad, and mentions girls levitating and Viking warriors with animal heads. The music is a slow, minor key rocker that’s also heavy on pentatonic figures from keyboardist Page McConnell and bassist Mike Gordon. At least until drummer Jon Fishman hits the launch button about two and a half minutes in and the band breaks into a high-speed jam anchored by Fishman’s irregular snare drum patterns and a strong guitar solo from Trey Anastasio. When the band returns to the opening music, the song builds to a exciting climax before going into a three-minute outro jam. Looking at the liner notes, it’s no surprise that this song was recorded live to tape at a rehearsal the day before the song made its live debut on October 31, 2013. It’s more energetic than anything else on the album, which was all recorded in studio.
Despite those lyrical non-sequiturs, though, “Fuego” is not the most ridiculous song on the album. That title goes to “Wombat”, a minimalist, sometimes atonal funk song led by Fishman’s rapped vocals, with the rest of the band following his lead. With references to “The Fish tv show / You know, with Abe Vigoda” and repeated emphasis on the word “crepuscular” and the phrase “cuddly but deadly”, “Wombat” is intentionally goofy. That doesn’t make it a good song, necessarily, but goofiness has always been a part of Phish’s personality and the fact that they were willing to put something so silly on a studio album speaks well to their comfort level in recording the album.
Sadly, the third-most ridiculous song on the record seems completely unintentional. “Winterqueen” is a quiet track led by a cute little guitar riff, which complements Tom Marshall’s woodland fantasy lyrics involving a landbound Winterqueen, a skybound Summerqueen, a Prince of Silence, and a Prince of Music. Unfortunately, those lyrics are far too precious to be taken seriously, and the music never really goes anywhere, so Anastasio’s cute guitar riff gets more and more cloying as the song continues. This goes on for four long minutes, and even the addition of a horn section late in the song doesn’t really make it more palatable. Similarly disappointing is another Anastasio/Marshall joint, the easygoing country rocker “Devotion to a Dream”. “Devotion” is a perfectly listenable, catchy song. The problem is that it sounds almost exactly the same as every other Anastasio/Marshall country rocker for the past decade. Songs like “Backwards Down the Number Line”, “Kill Devil Falls”, and “The Connection” all served essentially the same function for the band, but they were all better versions of this. Hell, even those songs pale in comparison to the less easygoing but stylistically similar Phish staple “Chalk Dust Torture”, which pegs “Devotion” as a third-rate song even among other Phish songs.
Fortunately for Phish, the rest of Fuego is quite good. “The Line” is a highly melodic mid-tempo track that seems to be about a man taking important free throws at an important basketball game, definitely a lyrical departure for the band. “Halfway to the Moon” is a jazz-inflected McConnell composition that naturally highlights his piano playing and his best-in-the-band singing voice. Mike Gordon’s “555” finds him in full-on funk mode, complete with a full horn section and plenty of organ from McConnell. The action movie-oriented lyrics about a man desperately trying to escape from his kidnappers fits the early ‘70s vibe of the song nicely, and the track’s languid tempo makes it one of Phish’s more successful studio funk efforts.
Anastasio and Marshall do their thing better a bit later in the album, with the more energetic “Sing Monica”, which also benefits from being a brief three minutes long. Not having to listen to Anastasio do another midtempo guitar solo for 50-60% of the song helps a lot. The dreamy, early ‘80s soft-rock styled “Waiting All Night” makes the dubious choice to let the thin-voiced Fishman attempt a verse of lead vocals, but the melody is right in his very limited range, so he manages to not embarrass himself before giving way to Gordon and Anastasio. Album closer “Wingsuit” starts just as dreamily as “Waiting All Night” but eventually builds to a distorted guitar and organ-fueled peak over its final two minutes.
Fuego isn’t the kind of album that’s going to win many new converts to Phish, or impress those jaded fans who are just sticking around hoping for a performance of “Harry Hood” or “You Enjoy Myself” that equals what the band was doing back in the day. Instead, it’s a very solid record that features generally tight, compact performances of good material. But with the silliness of “Wombat”, the tiredness of “Devotion to a Dream”, and the preciousness of “Winterqueen”, Phish has gone ahead and provided its naysayers with all the ammunition they need to maintain their already-established opinions on the band.
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