NPR got the scoop on the new Phish album Fuego earlier this week by allowing
listeners to stream it as part of their First Listen series. I've listened to it a lot since then.
Fuego is Phish’s first studio album in 5 years, and the 12th
of their career. Although known primarily
as a live band, Phish has always also made quality studio albums. Fuego might
be one of the best. It’s certainly the tops from a production standpoint.
Any batch of new Phish songs – like the kind that surfaces on a new album – will be immediately scrutinized and placed in the context of their entire body of work, with most of the speculation and analysis centered around how these pieces will fit in the puzzle of a live concert experience.
Producer Bob Ezrin worked with the band to create an album that
has both a contemporary sound and a 1970’s feel, bringing forth the strengths we have
come to expect from classic Phish while also tapping into subterranean emotions that
the band may not have not mined before.
The album’s opening track – the aptly titled Fuego – could certainly serve as a show
opener. It features an organically pieced-together structure that leaves a lot of room for bending at the whimsy of the band. Various different sections could be opened up
and explored as their own individual worlds.
Or it could just be a no brainer crowd pleaser on certain nights if the
moon is right. Even during dry spells between adding new songs to the set list,
Phish has always continued to create on a nightly basis. Before there was a Birds of a Feather, there
was a Chalkdust Torture. Either song can
be a means to get to, you know, THAT PLACE, and now we have the song Fuego
which can also knock on that door. Point is, new songs can go to the same place the old ones did, or visit new vistas, or vice versa. World's greatest (band).
Track 2 is called The
. Using basketball metaphors
Trey tries to express the gravity of trying and perhaps failing (Coventry?) in
a high pressure setting. He
succeeds. The Line fills the same void
that a song such as Limb By Limb does. Like
John Fishman’s woodblock (cowbell?) hits during the intro to Fuego, the happy sounding jam
at the end of The Line reminds you that you are listening to Phish. That little segment could have
been spontaneously inserted into a Down with Disease jam or as the outro to
Bouncing Around the Room, but here it is as part of a new song.
to a Dream
is a perfect example of the excellent production found throughout
the album, melding both modern and retro influences. The song has a deceptively radio-friendly
hookiness to it, which is only accentuated when the technicolor paisley chorus
of “it’s today…” chimes in. An observation could be drawn to the fact that Devotion to a Dream sounds like something off the
throwaway Party Time Joy Box bonus disc, but whose rule is Trey breaking if he
goes back to the songwriting table to improve upon an idea that wasn’t fully
fleshed out before? The result is a very
strong, catchy song.
When it comes to track 4, Halfway to the Moon, the term “Page song” obviously and immediately comes to
mind. In recent years it seems as though
Page’s self-penned songs haven’t quite melded into the fold as well as they
could have. There was another song Page
was doing for a little while called Beauty of a Broken Heart from his solo
album that never really took hold. This
song might as well be that one. However,
familiarity breeds acceptance and after it’s been around a while Halfway to the
Moon might reveal itself to be a song with a unique identity and a valuable
addition to the rotation. I wonder what came first - Duluth or the truth?
song number 5 – has an airy, Caribbean quality to it that is reminiscent of
something off the Grateful Dead’s Blues for Allah album, especially Crazy
Fingers. The subtle addition of the
horns during the track adds a nostalgic melancholy that I can’t quite put my finger
on but is akin to early childhood déjà vu. I actually see a lot of potential with this
song as a mid-to-late 1st
set summertime dalliance; a light-hearted retort
when preceded by something much darker.
Unless your name is Monica, you might not have an instant relationship
with Sing Monica
, the 6th
song on Fuego
. Still, I foresee this as
a song that could catch the jaded concert goer off guard. Phish is often regarded as being great
musicians, composers and improvisers, but are usually written off as
lyricists. I would argue that many Phish
lyrics which appear to be trivial are actually working at a higher artistic
level. If you think of Phish lyrics as Russell Edson
prose poems put to music, then a cachet gets added.
Much like how Halfway to the Moon is the “Page Song”, track number
7, which is called 555, can be
thought of as the “Mike song”. 555 has
that loping, Little Feat esque nature to it that a lot of Mike’s more recent
work has had. Last summer Mike
introduced a song called Say Something which I thought would have been good for
the new album. Instead, we get 555. The horns added to
555 don’t seem to have quite the same significance as they do on Winterqueen, but it's a cool song nonetheless. I can't help but wonder if 555 is a reference to something or is it just some Mike Gordon thing? I think it's just some Mike Gordon thing.
Track 8, Waiting All
Night, was the first song Phish released from Fuego so it’s the one I’ve
heard the most. Waiting All Night could
have gone either way. Is it fluffy “dad
rock” like some recent Wilco albums have been criticized of being, or is it a
new, confident path for Phish to be taking?
Even during my first listen to the song I was siding with the latter
perspective. Phish is a band in its 30th
year and most people would pinpoint their heyday or glory years as being
somewhere between 1995 and 1999. I think
Phish realizes this and isn’t trying to recapture their youth, nor are they
settling into early retirement as a nostalgia act. Like all the songs on Fuego, Waiting All
Night is a declaration by the members of Phish that they are continuing to grow
as people and musicians, that they still care, and that they have an
unflinching desire to keep doing the best they can while constantly redefining
what it means to do their best. Inside
the Fuego, they keep it rolling.
We’re not done yet because track 9 is Wombat. Had to have
that. I’m so glad they left in the words
“it’s kinda like the theme to the Phish
TV show, you know, with Abe Vigoda” in the song. Wombat shows that Phish is still in touch
with their wacky side. Not everything
has to be sentimental and poignant.
Sometimes you just want it to be cuddly but muscular. But what’s more carnivorous, a wombat or an
Wingsuit is the
last song on Fuego. Track 10. It’s going to take me a while to warm to the “you
never win a major only shooting par” lyric.
Golf references just don’t seem to work in Phish songs, unless that song
is Kung. I do like the rest of the song,
though. Sometimes the simplest, most
pedestrian thoughts and expressions are more profound than overly intellectual digressions. It’s time to put your Wingsuit on.