Fans of Phish rush to the store, wait sometimes hours in line for the stroke of midnight, and hope Phish’s latest studio album will live up to their hopes that it will either replicate the atmosphere of the band’s live performances or break new grounds as impressively as their earlier ecordings. And as much as Phish’s efforts are consistently professional and innovative, lately they’ve released relatively substandard works, at least in the eyes of those die-hards who rank Phish albums such as Junta or Rift among the top of popular rock’s musical masterpieces. Phish latest, Farmhouse, attempts to capture a more intimate, mature sound than previous attempts, but most “Phishheads” will probably put their headphones down after the 49 minutes and shake their heads in disappointment.
Farmhouse, recorded in Anastasio’s barn in Vermont over the course of a few weeks in October 1999, is not a bad album, but it does Phish little justice. The title song introduces the album in a very mellow, melodic manner—nothing extraordinary, but quite catchy. What follows are a number of slow-tempo country tunes, which sound much better when Phish performs them onstage. “Heavy Things,” is one of the better songs, also the first single released from Farmhouse, but by the time it has arrived in the album, nearly halfway through, it fails to carry the weight of what the preceding array of tunes lacked. However, things get better throughout the second half, with the playful “Gotta Jibboo,” the mind-reeling and artistically self-aware “Piper” (this is one of those party-stoppers, which gets everyone’s wide-eyed attention focused on the speakers for a few minutes), “Sand,” a journey through the funkadelic, and the mostly instrumental “First Tube,” the final song, which, ironically, resembles the Phish of old more than anything it has followed. Bela Fleck stops by on banjo in “The Inlaw Josie Wales,” yet neither he nor the song are particularly memorable.
“Piper” and “First Tube” might very well be the best songs on the album, perhaps because these crescendos incorporate every member of Phish equally, without the entire focus placed upon Anastasio, who it seems has taken a little too tight a hold upon the reigns of creation and production of all the tracks by solely writing and arranging almost every sound in Farmhouse. Anastasio’s a great artist, a guitarist and composer one could easily consider among the likes of Jimi Hendrix or Jerry Garcia, but he shouldn’t try standing on his own with three of the finest musicians (Jon Fishman, Page McConnell and Mike Gordon) backing him up.
Phish remains one of the most talented and socially conscious groups in contemporary music, so while their latest release may be somewhat of a disappointment, it is still amazing and its contents will find better expression in concert. It was a dry one for Phish, but solid enough to keep me waiting in line for the next release, which might yet catch the magic these four men are capable of creating.