The UnDead

Without distorting themselves beyond recognition, Phish have shaken off the Grateful Dead trip at long last.

Grateful Dead blah blah blah like Phish blah. D'oh! You knew it was coming -- the inevitable and maybe permanent association of "Phish" and "Dead." And

what a long, strange trip it's been! With The Story of The Ghost,

their ninth album, Phish have proved, if nothing else, that they will

survive (no Dead pun intended) the comparison. Certainly, there's more

to this band than either knee-jerk worship or dismissal can account for.

Is there any other major band heroic enough to show up at their gigs as

likely to play whole renditions of "Quadrophenia" or "Dark Side of the

Moon" as they are to play their own music?

There are many angles from which to admire Phish, but the sound they

present on album has always been based on loose, wavering improvisation.

This could be exasperating or exhilarating, depending on your taste in

music and/or drugs. Yet it was only a matter of time before the band had

to arrive at some fork in the musical road, if for no other reason than

to avoid boring themselves silly.

The last album, Billy Breathes, was a signpost to the path now

taken. Geared more toward the tuneful than previous recordings, without

abandoning their famously goofy sense of humor, it set the stage for

The Story of the Ghost, which goes even further in the same

direction. This time around, though, there's a funkifying process at

work, which strangely enough sounds a bit like a collision of

pre-"Joker" Steve Miller and, say, War. The results are still

certifiably Phishy, given that each song is really built around excerpts

from, or even fragments, of, you guessed it, jams.

This tricky new funk groove isn't wholly serious, needless to say.

"Ghost," the cleverly syncopated opener, features what must be

tongue-in-cheek, finger-popping bass guitar, while "Shafty" -- don't

expect Isaac Hayes, by any means -- includes the lovely couplet, "the

terrible thing about hell/is that when you're there you can't even

tell," a sentiment right outta Curtis Mayfield soundtracks (or was it

Kierkegaard?). "The Moma Dance" probably has nothing to do with either

funk or the Museum of Modern Art, since it's about about sailing --

perhaps the ultimate white-boy subject matter. And there's "Meat," a

smug Memphis grind spiced with ambivalently Booker T.-style organ. The

band doesn't really imitate or even pay homage to the '70s music they

borrow from; the groove is ultimately their own, and as usual they don't

pretend to be anything other than themselves.

Other tracks are more familiarly Phishy -- "Birds of a Feather," for

instance, which appropriately observes that "it's easy sometimes when

you just coast along"; it might be about Phish-heads, since it invokes

"whippets that dance in a curly-queue (sic) dance" and says "Birds of a

feather are flocking outside.../it's not an experience if they can't

bring someone along." "Guyute" waxes nostalgic about a pig and features

some Steely Dan-ish jazz chord changes, along with, it must be said,

farmboy whistling; it culminates in a patented Phish jam and ends with a

lyric about a "newborn elf." "Fikus" is a cloying bit of associative

improvisation with a banging-on-stuff-in-the-barn feel and interweaving

vocals; it is mercifully brief. "Limb by Limb" sports reflective,

Hendrixy lyrics about doves and melting away, but is as close to catchy

as Phish get, unless you count "Water in the Sky" (perhaps the most

rousing number the band has done), which allows for lyrics about a

sighing girl and waves its, well, high-watermark for the band.

On some songs, it isn't clear whether the tongue is in the cheek or if the

head really is in the clouds. "Frankie Says" is not a Lou Reed knock-off

as the title suggests; instead it advises you to relax -- "the world

will spin beside itself and suck you in/with threats and hopes beyond

compare." And "Roggae" is just a snippet, which fades

in and fades right back out after a bit of singing about the circus and

dreams.

There are some great successes here. "Brian and Robert" is a gentle

update of "As Tears Go By" or even "In My Room" -- the children play, we

get older and feel alone, etc. Best of all is the enticingly titled

"Wading in the Velvet Sea," a nicely harmonized bit of prog-rock

(inspirational rhyme: box/clocks). "End of Session" closes the album

with some proverbially swirling organ and swelling guitar -- a brief

coda designed to let you "close in on the earth" again.

Ghosts, dreams, waves, pigs, and circuses. Wherever Phish go, there they

are. Without distorting themselves beyond recognition, Phish have shaken

off the Grateful Dead trip at long last. To paraphrase Steve Miller's

60's chestnut, "Living in the U.S.A.," somebody buy them a cheese[veggie?]burger!