PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Phish: Round Room

Adam Dlugacz


Round Room

Label: Elektra
US Release Date: 2002-12-10
UK Release Date: 2003-01-27

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.