Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Phish's Round Room - Ten Years Later

This week I re-listened to Phish’s 2002 album “Round Room” a couple times and was reminded of how genuine it is.  There’s an intimate vibe and feeling present that is unmatched on any other Phish studio album or live recording.  The listener is like a fly on the wall as Phish explores these unfamiliar songs.
Round Room album cover
Unfamiliar?  Prior to Round Room’s release in December 2002, Phish had been on a 2-year hiatus.  They planned on returning to the stage on 12/31/02, so they got together a couple months prior for a brief rehearsal and to write material for a new studio album to come out some time in 2003.  They ended up with about 20 new songs and instead of waiting, they chose to record these pieces close to the moment of conception during an intense 4-day jam session.  These early takes were then quickly released that December prior to the comeback show with very little editing, production or overdubbing.  The result is the 12 song, 78 minute album that is Round Room.

What some people hear as tossed-off or haphazardly thrown together, I hear as a group of four friends enjoying each others' company and learning how to play together again, using the new songs as a canvas.  There was some dust and cobwebs to shake off, but the flaws and looseness are what make this album work in such a special way.  This was a band that, for once, wasn’t playing for an audience (present or imagined) and didn’t care if they botched a few notes, sang a little off-key, missed a cue or had the levels a little too hot.  The purity of the intent comes through loud and clear, as does the band’s spontaneity and energy.  It’s Phish at their most honest and most raw.

The Phish of 2002 had nothing left to prove.  Looking back even farther - they had already been through the transformative year of 1995, which peaked with a perfect three-set New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden, validating all their hard work to that point.  That success was soon followed by the transcendent year of 1997 and its legendary Fall Tour.  Then in late 1999 Phish found one more plateau of enlightenment during their massive midnight ‘til daylight set on Y2K at Big Cypress Indian Reservation in Florida. 

Phish Round Room press shot
After all those accomplishments the summer 2000 tour seemed like an afterthought and Phish the band needed a break.  The individual band members, however, remained busy during those two years “off”.  Trey focused on his many side projects including Oysterhead, Mike worked with Leo Kottke and on the film Rising Low, Page formed the Latin-funk band Vida Blue, and Fishman gigged with Pork Tornado and the Jazz Mandolin Project.  They had each grown as musicians and brought back new skills when they re-convened in Fall 2002 for this rehearsal/recording session.  So while what you hear on Round Room may not be a polished version of Phish playing at their absolute tightest, you’re offered four soloists displaying new strengths and finding ways for these strengths to work as part of the ensemble.

The lyrics found on Round Room also add a lot of value.  Like many Phish songs, what at first might seem childish and repetitive is later revealed to contain meaning and wisdom.  A decade ago when I first heard this CD I picked up on an unusual Eastern bent that recalled Zen koans.  I still feel that now.  Consider such phrases as:

Clinging still, against my will, to promises of clearer days (Anything But Me)

I went to the lighthouse and I liked the view (Round Room)

Why is the sun hot?
Why does it rain?
Why is there danger and
Why is there pain?
Why can't the burden
We carry go away?
And why isn't it Friday today?

Blue, splinter and grow
New crystals of snow
Seen several kinds
Through seven below
(Seven Below)

If you keep your eyes open, you may find yourself there
If you keep your heart open
(All of these Dreams)

The mountain here is now a hill (Walls of the Cave)

Listen to the silent trees (Walls of the Cave)

One other point: I find it interesting that the songs from Round Room – with the possible exception of 46 Days(?) – never really became live staples in the years and tours since.  Like a child you don’t want to see grow up, perhaps Phish prefers to keep these songs in their infant state.  These aren't well worn paths.  By playing these tracks infrequently they retain a certain mystique when heard live.  Nonetheless, I still wish they would get to these more often!

Round Room offers a rare glimpse into the musical minds of the four members of Phish without the ecstatic roar of 10,000 fans in the background or the over-thinking that can result from months of studio time with a heavy-handed producer.  You’re right there in the “room” with them, up close and personal.

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