Music

Phish: Big Boat

On their 13th official studio album, Phish continue to mature as a band while still keeping things fresh, surprising and funky.


Phish

Big Boat

Label: Jemp
US Release Date: 2016-10-07
Amazon
iTunes

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?

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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