On their eighth studio album, Farmhouse, Phish realizes what everyone except them seemed to grasp years ago they're Trey Anastasio's band and they're better for it.
One of rock's most expressive and technically gifted guitarists and songwriters, Anastasio has long been the driving force behind Phish's cult prominence. It's the shaggy frontman's ambition, vision and goofball sensibilities he once led 55,000 fans through an unsuccessful attempt to break the world's record for largest group dance during the band's show at Oswego County Airport last summer that has mostly sparked fans' loyalties.
Anastasio clearly is a star. He's also a sucker for utopia, always encouraging keyboardist Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman to contribute ideas. While this is admirable, his colleagues' often less-than-riveting input generally has watered down the band's overall results.
Most of Phish's last studio album, 1998's The Story of the Ghost, was conceived during one of the band's often extraordinary jam sessions. The exercise turned out to be ill conceived, as a majority of the songs just didn't work, spoiled by too many ideas churning all at once. The tracks seemed rushed and incomplete, leaving Ghost dispensing the overall feeling of a third-grade science experiment.
Anastasio took control in making Farmhouse literally. The band recorded the album in a 200-year-old barn the guitarist owns in Vermont, and it is a warm, intense and focused work. Anastasio also wrote or co-wrote and arranged all of the songs, a first for a Phish album. And while the group plays as well as ever, here they work in service to the songs, rather than just showing off their estimable chops at the drop of a pick.
Anastasio goes beautiful on "The In-Law Josie Wales" (RealAudio excerpt), a melancholy acoustic number that features banjo player Bela Fleck. He then turns around and goes Zappa on "First Tube," a winding seven minute instrumental that initially recalls the acid-rock mad genius's Middle Eastern jam "Sheik Yerbouti," with its mystical, snake-charming structure.
"Heavy Things" (RealAudio excerpt) is Anastasio's and lyricist Tom Marshall's crowning achievement a song so melodic that *NSync could perform it and not feel abnormal. A tormented-lover's tale that pumps with the flutter of an anxious heart, even its textured guitar solo sounds like a streaming tear. The lyrics mix humor with sincerity, a novel concept for the eternal geek Marshall: "Vanessa calls me on the phone/ Reminding me/ I'm not alone/ I fuss and quake and cavitate/ I try to speak and turn to stone."
The days of burning synapses and the ribbon reflectors are history; Marshall works from a level of maturity and reality here that runs throughout the album's songs. Farmhouse dips into genuine silliness only once: Anastasio wrote the words to "Gotta Jiboo," a nonsensical mantra saved (thankfully) by an infectious, horn-spiked bounce. Phish's new discipline might be most evident on "Twist" (RealAudio excerpt). On its face, the song oozes hippie, and could have degenerated into an unbearable combination of Latin rhythm, gleeful psychedelia and wonkish, tiresome jamming. The band doesn't waste a note, though, keeping an airtight groove and turning the "Woo!" chant that runs throughout into a cheap thrill that, around three and a half minutes, doesn't wear out its somewhat tenuous welcome.
No, it isn't perfect, but at least Phish can say they've now made a real studio album and a really good album with Farmhouse, a work that goes beyond 1996's Billy Breathes. Looks like the band, and Trey Anastasio, finally get the point.