Regardless of what anyone thinks of Fuego, Phish’s most recent studio album (which was released in June 2014, but I just bought it this week, so give me a break already), the title track kicks things off in an undeniably Phishy manner. Most of the album has a mature, almost subdued nature, but that opening track has all the makings of a Phish classic. It has multiple segments, the music is knotty and complex, the lyrics are equally goofy and incomprehensible (“Freak out and throw stuff, world’s greatest dad / read a little book about Vlad the Impaler”) – it’s as if they were saying, “OK, we’ve shifted gears a bit overall, but just so you know, we’re still Phish.” And they are.
This is also the first Phish album in which all four members are either in their 50’s or pushing 50 (as of this writing, they’re all in their 50’s). At this point, the band has nothing to prove. They’ve been a band – with no personnel changes – for roughly 30 years and have been releasing albums for more than 25 of those years. Besides, studio albums aren’t exactly their bread and butter – like the Grateful Dead (a band to which Phish will be forever compared, like it or not), Phish release albums every once in a while when they’re not on a random tour, just to remind us that they still know their way around a studio.
Phish studio albums have been appearing with less and less frequency. There was a time when they would be coming out roughly every two years, but that eventually changed – their last three studio albums (including Fuego) were released in 2014, 2009 and 2004. It’s important to note that 2004’s Undermind was supposed to be their farewell album – they split up soon afterwards, but it didn’t take. As a result, the post-Undermind era – often referred to as Phish 3.0 – is marked by a certain maturity, both in their overall outlook, and – thankfully – their musical skill.
In the timeframe between Undermind and 2009’s “comeback” album, Joy, vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Trey Anastasio underwent some serious personal health issues, pulled over in his home state of Vermont in 2006 for driving under the influence and drug possession, leading to a high-profile rehabilitation case. Since coming out of what appears to be an extremely successful rehab, Anastasio seems to have a new lease on life – it’s a state of being that seems to have transformed the band. Joy was a fitting title – it’s the sound of a band back together, but with a new attitude and sharper focus. Purists may claim that the band has lost their edge, but if recent Phish shows are any indication, this is patently untrue. Besides, Phish fans rarely gauge the band by their studio albums. They’re not what’s important (besides, the band’s studio work has plenty of edge – there’s just more of a focus on songwriting and less on 35-minute jams).
Phish ventured into some relatively untested waters while making what would eventually become Fuego (for a long time, the working title was Wingsuit). After debuting most of the songs during a Halloween 2013 concert in Atlantic City (including a few songs that didn’t make it onto the final album), the band recorded most of the album in Nashville with producer Bob Ezrin. While his name may not ring a bell, chances are you’ve heard an Ezrin-produced album, especially if you listen to rock music made in the 1970’s. He’s worked with everyone from Alice Cooper to Lou Reed to Kiss to Peter Gabriel to Pink Floyd. A great deal of the album has Ezrin’s fingerprints all over it. While I’m not an expert on every album he’s produced, I do happen to be quite familiar with Peter Gabriel’s first solo album, and there are a lot of similarities between that 1977 masterpiece and Fuego besides Ezrin’s name on the credits – the big, cavernous, full-band sound, gorgeous vocal harmonies, lots of dramatic piano (the album opens with what sounds like Phish keyboard player Page McConnell playing a full grand piano in an enormous concert hall), and a fully detailed sound. Seriously – this is an album that begs to be listened to at high volume on a really nice pair of headphones.
While the title track is hardly a surprising entry in the Phish canon, ensuing tracks continue the relatively even-keeled maturity they began nurturing on Joy. “The Line,” “Devotion to a Dream” and “Waiting All Night” sound surprisingly straightforward and heartfelt. “You’re clinging to the notion you’ll be fine.” “I’ve got faith in a fairytale.” Hard to believe these are lines from the same band who sang things like “Come stumble my mirth beaten worker / I’m Jezmund the family berserker.” Perhaps Phish have come to the conclusion that the studio albums are where the band house their navel-gazing and sober perspective, while the stage is where they continue to let loose. Who knows? There’s plenty of unhinged nuttiness on what I also feel is Fuego’s weakest track, “Wombat.” In the studio, it sounds like forced quirkiness, all self-referential with awkward references to Abe Vigoda (“…from the Fish TV show!”) and previous Phish songs like “Wilson.” Almost as if they had to fulfill their “weird quota.” But it doesn’t seem to hold up without an audience. I’m told that “Wombat” is a fun song in concert, and that’s good.
As usual, McConnell and bass player Mike Gordon are able to contribute some of their individual songs to this album – McConnell’s “Halfway to the Moon” is an extremely tuneful mid-tempo rocker boosted by a typically deft McConnell piano solo, and Gordon’s “555” is pretty much what we’ve come to expect from the oddball bass player – idiosyncratic yet catchy and funky, this time aided by an irresistible horn section (I should add that horns are all over this album, and are exceptionally well-employed). “555” was co-written by Scott Murawski, Gordon’s long-time collaborator who worked with Mike most recently on his excellent 2014 solo album, Overstep. It’s entirely possible that “555” is an Overstep outtake, but it works better in the Phish realm. Gordon’s solo work tends to have a more acoustic, insular feel, and this song excels when Phish (and Ezrin) push it into the stratosphere. It’s easily one of Fuego’s most satisfying tracks.
While not a lot of Fuego tracks work as vehicles for Phish’s legendary live jamming, there are several instances where the compositions and their recordings reach an epic, anthemic quality. “Winterqueen” is a beautiful addition to the Phish canon, with Anastasio’s electric guitar lines and drummer Jon Fishman’s floor tom work interplaying nicely (it’s also one of the better Anastasio vocal performances in recent memory). The closing track (and one-time title track) “Wingsuit” closes the album nicely as a gentle ballad with some inspiring lead guitar that brings to mind Pink Floyd (a frequent Ezrin client – he did, in fact, produce The Wall, among other Floyd albums).
Although many Phish fans tend to be indifferent on the subject of the band’s studio work – the shows are where it’s at, and I get that – I feel that these albums serve as accurate barometer of the band’s headspace, if that makes sense. Bob Ezrin seems to have accurately captured the band in 2014, and that’s a good thing.