Billy Breathes Life into Phish's Funky, Melodic Image

Phish, with the exception of their 1988 debut Junta, have had a

difficult time capturing their essence, and hence their appeal, on disc.

Too often their music sounds forced, awkwardly executed, or just plain

boring on albums. People who have never seen the band's fiercely

executed, ambitious live shows were right in wondering what all the fuss

was about -- and fuss there has been. This past August, Phish played

before 135,000 ticketholders over two days at the Plattsburgh Air Force

Base in August, an event they christened the Clifford Ball, which just

happened to be the largest concert in North America in the past year.

Listening to 1994's Hoist, '93's Rift, '92's major-label

debut A Picture of Nectar, or 90's Lawn Boy, even die-hard

Phish heads usually admit, left the listener unsatisfied. These albums

had their moments, but that's all they were.

Billy Breathes, Phish's first studio-effort after last year's

certified-gold A Live One, shows for the first time on disc just

how infectious and skilled Phish can be. Working with producer Steve

Lillywhite may have had something to do with this success; in the past,

Phish has always had a large role in production, and working with

Lillywhite undoubtedly let them concentrate more completely on what was

going on their side of the control board, that is, the music. The disc

starts with a burst of feedback and a driving beat laid down by

band-mascot and drummer Jon Fishman on "Free." As guitarist Trey

Anastasio and keyboardist Page McConnell mirror each other's lines, the

tenor of the album is instantly set: confident, relaxed, playful, eager

to show what they can do but never trying too hard. Anastasio's vocals

sound better than they ever had--uncluttered, forceful and understated


the same time, and beautifully front and center in the mix. (Indeed,

Anastasio, who often sings in a quasi-hushed tone, sounds miles better

than he ever has on disc before, probably a result of both Lillywhite's

production and his continuing efforts to improve his singing voice.) When

Anastasio plunges into a fuzz-tone riff backed by bassist Mike Gordon's

deliciously funked-up vamps, it's clear from Billy Breathes' first

moments that Phish is successful here at doing what they have never been

successful at before--capturing their virtuosic, jam-oriented sound within

the limitations of three and a half minutes.

While Billy Breathes genuinely does not have a weak track among

the thirteen that made the disc (many of which, such as "Free" and the

album-ending "Prince Caspian," will already be familiar to Phish fans

from concerts), there are a handful of truly gorgeous tracks--"Free" is

one of them, and "Taste" another. "Taste" starts off with acoustic guitar

and hand drums, is soon joined by McConnell's ranging piano lines and

single-note accents, and when Gordon's bobbing bass-line joins in behind

the repeated-line, "I can't see through the lights," it is hard not to

smile at the joyful, all-encompassing success of the song. (With its

shuffling, building melody and light-handed virtuosity, it's hard not to

dance along, as well.) And, amazingly enough, "Taste" clocks in at four

minutes as well--a far cry from the ten-plus minutes that many of the best

songs off of Junta stretched over, leaving many to believe that

the reason for Phish's relative lack of success in the recording medium

is that they needing ample time to stretch out. On Billy Breathes,

the band creates that space and shows it can be done in a reasonable

amount of time, again, probably the result of having Lillywhite's deft

hand focusing on the production.

While Phish has been lumped into the neo-hippie category along with

band's such as Blues Traveler and the rest of HORDE nation, musically,

Phish ranges from flat-out funk, courtesy of Gordon's slapped-bass lines,

to delicate, unwinding tales marked by the band's spinning melody lines,

as showcased on "Theme From the Bottom," a beautiful song that feels as

if it is built, piece-by-piece, like a house of cards.

The title-track is also worth special mention, and, mirroring the album's

tenor, it is both gentler and roomier than many of Phish's past efforts.

Indeed, with its emphasis on intricately beautiful, web-like melodies,

Billy Breathes may come as a surprise to those who had pegged

Phish as a psychedelic, jam-oriented band, but it is a wonderful

surprise, full of hidden nooks and secret gems to be revealed to the

careful listener.

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