It’s almost pathetic how major labels have chosen a path towards self-destruction by relying on the alchemy of marketing majors over talent. While the men holding the purse strings at the Seagram’s conglomerate waste their time battling their online file sharing and CD burning boogeyman, they continually ignore the fact that music fans just want acts that produce more than one record chock full of singles made for TRL Live. Instead of investing in bands that will grow and build a fan base over time that will continually stick by them through thick and thin, the majors hitch their wagon to the likes of Avril Lavigne. What the labels fail to grasp is that eventually people grow up, and when they do, the pathetic musings of teeny punkers like New Found Glory and the Used lose all impact. By turning a blind eye to anyone over 16, the labels have ignored key demographic groups that actually want to listen to finely crafted songs (for proof of this, see Bob Dylan or Tom Petty).
Given the circumstances, it’s quite marvelous how Phish has survived. After all, they are a band with almost no MTV appeal, no singles that will garner significant radio airplay, and no amount of air brushing will get them on the cover of Rolling Stone or Spin. To make matters worst, their studio output is considered secondary to their live show making their albums afterthoughts for true fans. But what really must get the suits at Elektra crazy is that Phish actually encourages their followers to bootleg their shows and they even go as far as to help them catalog sets by posting set lists on their website. You can almost see the pink slips flying as Elektra’s 15-volume live discs released in 2001 failed to register with fans who probably already owned them.
So what’s a band to do after taking a two year hiatus and finding themselves in a musical landscape that has no place for anything other than the flavor of the second? Why, release their best studio performance of course. After spending most of the ‘90s convincing the world that the spirit of the ‘60s, albeit through the tie-dye tinted glasses of the Grateful Dead, would indeed live on, it seems that there’s little left for Phish to prove. Through countless live shows, the band had created a live presence that pushed the envelope of entertainment with a stage presence that was as much Dr. Seuss as Allman Brothers. Ever since the quartet of Trey Anastasio, Jonathan Fishman, Jeff Holdworth, replaced by Page McConnell, and Mike Gordon emerged from Vermont in 1985, they’ve been busy building a devoted psychedelic fan base throughout the world. Just as the Dead had their Deadheads, Phish has their followers who dutifully spend the primes of their lives following the band across America, living in their own personal Garden of Edens, better known as stadium parking lots.
Over 12 years the band released eight proper albums, of which A Picture of Nectar and Junta are regarded as the best. For the most part, the studio seemed to inhibit the band, robbing them of the energy of a live crowd that served to fuel the frenetic machine they became on stage. Recorded songs seemed to serve as embryonic launch pads from which the band would launch into mind bending jams. One could probably make a pretty convincing argument that if the band never released another album they would not lose a single fan. This really must devastate Elektra: Imagine a band who could survive quit nicely without the backing of a label. If Phish had just come out now, it’s almost impossible to imagine any major supporting a band like them. Especially if their first album failed to chart a hit single.
It’s not as if the members of Phish were hermits throughout their two year layoff: Anastasio released a solo album and formed Oysterhead with Les Claypool of Primus and Stewart Copeland of the Police, McConnell released recordings with his side band Vida Blue, and Fishman concentrated on his other bands, Pork Tornado, and Jazz Mandolin Project amongst a host of other collaborations. The respite did wonders for the band, and on Round Room they emerge as a focused band intent on releasing a splendid body of work. To begin with, Phish has learned to trust the studio, realizing that four walls and no throngs of screaming fans does not mean they have to inhibit their creativity. On Round Room, the quartet is intent on writing complete songs rather than concert hall fodder. On past efforts, the band’s short attention seemed to short-circuit a lot of their better songs. Just as a song would congeal, the group would sabotage the effort with a ridiculous solo that was more ear piercing than impressive. Not anymore, as Phish displays a trust in their ability as song writers not seen before from them. A large part of the improvement comes from Anastasio whose voice has progressed from a pinched nasal yelp to a rich timbre as sticky sweet as real Vermont syrup. While McConnell earns MVP awards for his keyboard playing, standing out on all 12 tracks.
The album begins with “Pebbles and Marbles” a keyboard driven track that pulls and pushes like the tide before building into a foam peaked wave of guitar freak out. On “Anything But Me”, the band comes across like the love child of the Byrds and Lambchop, as doo-wop like backing vocals build into a chorus that brings to mind a less serious version of Blur’s “Tender”. The third track, “Round Room”, is the front runner for happiest song of the year, as Gordon and Anastasio have fun with a calypso beat, and it features a whistling that is reminiscent of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. Besides being an instant toe tapper, “Round Room” serves as an excellent benchmark of the band’s growth. In the past, the band may have copped out by taking a silly approach of inane lyrics and guitar solos, but in 2002 the band stays true to the song, relying on it, instead of their spontaneity, as the source of success.
An ode to tequila, “Mexican Cousin”, features one of Anastasio’s bleakest lines: “Am I in bed or in a hearse? / The things you tell me about myself can’t make me feel any worse”. The track is highlighted by a stunning organ segue courtesy of McConnell who, throughout the album, shines like never before. The band uses “Friday” as an obvious foundation for what will be a live favorite, despite its relatively brief length of six minutes. Throughout Round Room, Phish waltzes through country, blues and pop, like tour guides illuminating all that American music has to offer.
“Seven Below” is almost as much fun as the title track, sounding like a ditty conceived in a saloon in the Wild West. As the song unfolds like a tall man from within a Volkswagen Bug, the band does an excellent job of using an extended jazz touch to bridge the first and second halves of the album. “Mock Song” is a hilarious track full of gibberish as the band winks at their own penchant for fairy tale land lyrics. On “46 Days”, Phish moves to another level resurrecting the power of the Band. With an organ whistling like a freight train, the guitars are chugging up and down like pistons and the drums pitter-pattering like rain on a tin roof, the song is Phish at their funkiest, toe-tappingest best. Unfortunately, the band seems to lose a bit of steam after the catharsis of “46 Days”. “All of These Dreams” is intended to be the blues, but in the world of Phish where anything is possible and there’s not a lot of room for pain, the song’s affect is muted. “Walls of the Cave” begins with everyone tuning up before breaking into a rambling number that cannot be saved by a twinkling melody that runs through it. While Anastasio has never been a gifted lyricist, towards the end of this album he seems to drift towards the kind of lyrics that earns Phish its hippy-dippy moniker. Songs about trees and rivers and mountains are fun and somewhat endearing, but ultimately they come off as a bit too much like the ramblings of someone who’s taken too much acid.
While Phish has always been blessed with talent and fearlessness in the face of trying something new, they’ve never sounded so sure of themselves on record. It always seemed as if Phish was penning songs with one eye on how they would come off live; forging albums with an innocence that made the songs precious but somewhat misguided. Too preoccupied with finding that perfect jam, the band searched every nook and cranny of sonic exploration in their search, ignoring the nuances that better songwriters often find in simplicity. Now, a little bit older and a bit wiser, they rely on their own strengths having found that great album within them. This time around, they are focused on writing a magnificent album that pulls together all their talent and spits out a finely polished specimen that is truly worthy of ranking with their best live shows. In a world where musical ability often comes second to marketability, Round Room serves as a testament to what a band can do when they are allowed to grow on their own.