It’s an unfortunate fact that Phish studio albums are often met with varying degrees of indifference. Obviously, people who don’t like the band couldn’t care less. And the mega-fans will generally shrug and tell you that the live albums and — more importantly — the in-concert experience is how you can best experience the music of Vermont’s famous sons.
Full disclosure: I’m a fan, but have never seen the band in concert (I know, I know). Personally, I feel that the misconceptions surrounding Phish do a disservice to the studio albums, which contain plenty of smart composition and easily digestible tracks for non-fans to appreciate. And while I’m sure that you need to experience a Phish concert in order to truly experience the band, the studio albums should not be so flippantly discounted among the diehards. If anything, the albums are a fairly accurate barometer of the band’s headspace and can provide definitive recordings of songs that can’t be easily recreated on stage.
Big Boat is Phish’s 13th official studio album and reunites the band with legendary producer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed), who oversaw the band’s previous studio album, 2014’s Fuego. Generally speaking, if you liked Fuego, you’ll probably like Big Boat. They’re essentially cut from the same cloth. In the studio, the band began streamlining their sound back in 2009 with their reunion/comeback album, Joy. That album signified not only Phish’s return after a five-year absence, it was also the first album they made with a newly sober vocalist/guitarist Trey Anastasio, who underwent a high-profile (and highly successful, apparently) drug rehabilitation. The deeply focused Joy was the sound of a band with a new lease on life, making great music that celebrated life without losing the musical edge (and, perhaps more importantly, the musical chops) that made them popular.
Big Boat continues in the same vein as its two predecessors, allowing the band to explore and voice their personal maturity. Yes, there are “epic” tracks, there’s weirdness, but this is also a band of four guys in their 50s, taking stock.
The band also mines some new territory on Big Boat right off the bat. Drummer Jon Fishman, never one known to write or sing lead, does both on the opening track, “Friends”. The song bounces between a whirling, percussive Who sound-alike circa Quadrophenia and snarly post-punk. It’s a track with a lot of attitude, but is massively jarring as it sounds nothing like a Phish song. And while it’s practically unheard of for Fishman to write and lead a Phish song in the studio, at least keyboard player Page McConnell usually contributes one or two songs per album. Here, he’s allotted three: “Home” is a fairly standard pop/rock number that leads off in a variety of avenues, including an atonal funk breakdown followed by some angelic a cappella harmonies. McConnell’s two other contributions include the goofy “Things People Do” (a blip of a song that recalls the oddities of A Picture of Nectar, and probably the first time a major band has namechecked Pinterest) and the synth-drenched glowstick-waving “I Always Wanted It That Way,” which sounds like a cross between New Order and Remain in Light-era Talking Heads with its insistent beat, electronic groove and exotic percussion.
As usual, bass player Mike Gordon throws his hat in the ring with one of his patented oddball numbers, “Waking Up Dead” (co-written by his current go-to songwriting partner, Scott Murawski), but it doesn’t fit his usual funk or bluegrass templates; the song distances itself from the rest of Big Boat as a sort of gloomy psychedelic/prog number. It wouldn’t sound out of place on Gordon’s most recent solo album, 2014’s wonderfully strange Overstep.
Anastasio takes on his usual lion’s share of the songwriting, with some songs written by himself and some co-written by lyricist Tom Marshall. The songs vary greatly in format, from the rustic, acoustic “Running Out of Time” (reminiscent of 1996’s Billy Breathes album) to the southern soul of “Tide Turns” (a delightful number that incorporates a solid horn section, sounding like Phish backing Al Green in 1973). The first single, the breezy “Breath and Burning”, is harmless fun, and provides a goofy self-referential wink: “We’re not going gently / We’re gonna rage like Page in the dying of the light.”
You want funky jams? Trey’s got it covered. As expected, there’s a number of tracks that have already been road-tested by the band and make for great compact studio numbers as well as live tracks that work spectacularly as marathon soloing launch pads. “Blaze On” is a catchy, funky slice of gumbo stew, complete with hugely optimistic lyrics (“You got your nice shades on / And the worst days are gone / So now the band plays on / You got one life, blaze on”), not to mention weirdly apocalyptic ones (“You never get too sad / You never get too blue / It must be all the chemtrails raining down on you”). I’m partially convinced the song is about the end of the world, but I could be wrong. “No Men in No Man’s Land” is another jam-ready song, with the band locking down a bulletproof groove and Anastasio taking a typically expert solo at the halfway mark.
Phish also does an excellent job of combining heartfelt emotion with longform song structure, a tough trick for most bands to pull off successfully: while not really a lyrically complex number, Anastasio’s gentle “Miss You” is an exquisite song of loss and longing. The band sympathetically backs him with a loping, mid-tempo groove that eventually leads into a soaring guitar solo and an anthemic vibe that’s not a million miles removed from “Prince Caspian” (another epic from Billy Breathes, arguably one of Phish’s watershed studio albums).
As streamlined and pop-friendly as Phish can get in their later years, they still love cranking out a good epic, and they close Big Boat with “Petrichor”, a song Phish has yet to perform live as a band, although Anastasio has arranged and played it with orchestras in the past. The song goes a long way in convincing hardcore fans that they can still pull off an intricately arranged, multifaceted composition. The band fires on all cylinders, but it’s Trey’s moment as the song contains plenty of complex, interweaving guitar lines and emotionally potent vocals. “The rain came down and washed it all away,” Trey sings reflectively. The song has the potential to be a concert highlight along the same lines as Phish classics like “Divided Sky” and “Tweezer”.
Big Boat could easily be perceived as the natural sequel to Fuego, but it works spectacularly well on its own, with Bob Ezrin guiding the band through a variety of song styles from breezy pop to elaborate prog rock. Who knew that Phish could produce one of their most eclectic albums a good three decades into their existence?