Whenever a renowned live act like Phish or the Grateful Dead or Widespread Panic record an album, there’s always talk of trying to replicate the band’s live sound in the studio. On most releases that doesn’t happen, but on Phish’s new album on JEMP Records – set to be released on September 8 – entitled Joy, producer Steve Lillywhite (Phish – Billy Breathes, DMB – Under The Table and Dreaming, U2 – October) has successfully captured the energy and spirit that has made the quartet one of the top touring acts of all time.
The members of Phish came together to record Joy just after their highly successful reunion shows in Hampton and the lack of tension and angst between the band members comes through on the album’s ten tracks, all of which have been played live at this point. Just as with Wilco’s latest release, Wilco (The Album), Joy seems to be dedicated to the fanbase that has long followed the whims of Phish through a hiatus and a breakup and came back as strong as ever this summer. Joy demonstrates that you don’t have to be going through turmoil to come out with a solid record.
Joy starts with the peppy Backwards Down The Number Line which features a ripping two minute solo from guitarist Trey Anastasio, just one of many blistering – albeit straight forward – guitar solos on the disc. Number Line also features Trey harmonizing with himself during the chorus thanks to double-tracked vocals – another key component of Joy that seems to happen on every track. READ ON for more of my thoughts on Phish’s new album…
The second song on Joy, Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan, sounds polished but doesn’t lose any of the power and verve that makes the song a winner in concert. Keyboardist Page McConnell starts the song off with a quick swipe at the piano and asserts himself throughout the tune by adding a number of melodic riffs to the mix during the verses and Trey’s 90 second solo.
After Joy begins with two rockers, we get a breather of sorts for track number three with the tender title track. Trey starts off on an acoustic that’s mic’d real close as you can hear every move his fingers make up and down the fret board. Anastasio pours his heart into this one and while the lyrics may be a bit syrupy the delivery is sweet. Lillywhite seems to excel at capturing Phish power ballads and Joy keeps that record intact.
Just in case you were starting to think this was a Trey solo album, the Mike Gordon-written Sugar Shack follows Joy returning the disc to the party vibe of the first three tunes. By far the funkiest track on the album, Sugar Shack shows off some fine handiwork from all four members including drummer Jon Fishman’s heavily syncopated beat, McConnell’s light touch on the clavinet, Trey’s pointed leads and Gordon singing harmony with himself during the chorus. This quirky tune is a true group effort and will sound great played loud on your stereo. Some of the live versions may have been a bit shaky but the version on Joy does the song justice.
One of the things that should capture Phish fans’ attention quickly on Joy are the drum tracks. I’m not sure if it has to do with recording in an actual studio as compared to The Barn but you can hear the complex rhythms Fish lays down so much better than on the group’s last few releases. Plus, he came up with inventive parts and nailed them. Ocelot is just one of the tracks that benefits from the drummer’s reemergence as he lays down a slinky Dead-like groove that allows the other three to add all sorts of adventurous fills without losing the beat.
If it wasn’t clear Joy was a straight-forward rock album on the first half of the disc just wait until Kill Devil Falls kicks in. This cousin of Chalk Dust Torture and Character Zero would’ve been a hit in the ’70s during the hey day of rock radio. Anastasio’s tone is crunchier and more aggressive than on the other tracks and Page fills out the sound nicely on organ. McConnell also steps up with a nice, quick solo before Trey spends a minute setting the fretboard a blaze.
Most of the songs on Joy are arranged and sound just like the live versions. In fact, Phish fans might be a little underwhelmed at how little studio trickery takes place on the album…until they hear Light. In concert, the band has segued into Light each time they’ve played it but on Joy the song starts with a brilliant 90 second delay-driven intro that stands out as the best part of the disc. It seems like a completely different song before Gordon drops some bombs leading into the verses which, again, feature double-tracked Trey vocals. Light concludes with a cool a capella segment, similar to what they did at Fenway Park earlier this summer, that cuts out just before Anastasio asks “Hey Page, where ya been?”
I Been Around – which started with that same introduction at SPAC – shows off the fun, quirky side of Phish that has been an integral part of their success. McConnell leads the band in his best Lawn Boy-esque lounge singer voice through a tune that’s similar in style and structure to Billy Hill’s “The Glory of Love.” You can hear how much fun the band is having recording the tune as Page urges Trey on during his brief solo by yelling “alright” and “oh yeah!”
The penultimate song on Joy is the longest and most complex tune on the album, Time Turns Elastic. Musically, TTE hearkens back to the early days of Phish when Anastasio was writing epic multi-part compositions but lyrically it seems more like a song off of Shine or Bar 17 and Trey’s words just don’t stop coming at you quickly. In concert, you get the payoff of the jam that ends the tune but that’s nowhere to be found on the studio version.
As you make your way through Joy you find standout moments from each member of the band and Mike Gordon fans will want to take note of his work during the album’s final track, Twenty Years Later. If Gordon’s bass was human it would probably sue him for assault and battery as the bassist unloads relentlessly on his instrument with quick, melodic runs, especially towards the end of the song. Anastasio and McConnell trade off lyrics in the chorus leading to Trey taking over singing into what sounds like a megaphone during the bridge before Gordon gets his shining moment.
So, how does Joy compare to the band’s other releases? It’s near the top in this Phish fan’s view as Lillywhite really captured the live vibe and put together a well-rounded album that shows off the best of batch of songs the band has written since before their hiatus. The quartet and their producer clearly had the fans in mind when putting this together and I think most of the group’s followers will find Joy in the new album.