From the Vault: Phish – Joy

Before making attempts to establish my own online platforms, I took a more parasitic approach, abusing the comment sections of friends’ sites for my own purposes. With Phish returning to Atlanta for two performances this week and news of a new studio album in the works, this seemed like a good time to look back to those days and dig up my review of the band’s last studio recording.

When Phish released Joy late in the summer of 2009, it was the band’s first album in five years. Before March 2009, Phish had not appeared in concert since their two-day farewell in Coventry, Vermont in August 2004. Among other events, that five-year period saw the arrest, serious drug rehabilitation, and newfound sobriety of frontman Trey Anastasio. When Phish made its collective return to recording with Joy, longtime fan Chantyce was not impressed. I had a different reaction, though, and my responsive review from October 14, 2009 is reprinted below.

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I am just now reviewing Phish’s latest studio album, Joy, because it did not arrive until today. Although I preordered the CD/LP bundle, the always friendly and usually sensible people at Phish Dry Goods decided to delay the whole shipment until the later date of the LP release. This really was fine, since my first listen of the new jam jumped off the high-quality vinyl and I was happy about that.

This is a counter-review, in that it is responsive and in opposition to Sean’s review, above, but I don’t plan to leap to a defensive posture right away. Instead I’ll start by saying that Joy is a solid album. It is good for listening and danceable.

Now to the defensive stuff. To evaluate and understand this album, we need to understand it in context, and there are two contexts to consider. The first is as a Phish studio album. A post- (indeed post-post-) Hiatus Phish studio album. [Insert obligatory blanket statement about Phish being a live band and weak in the studio.] I don’t think I’ve looked forward to a Phish album more than I did Round Room. This first sign of post-Hiatus life carried the burden of furthering a nearly ten-year-long mantle of musical development, and I don’t think it succeeded in doing that. It’s not terrible, as songs like “Walls of the Cave” played well on disc, and “46 Days” played well live. The release was noticeably hasty (the liner notes told a tale of just four days of recording, spread over disconnected pairs of two days) and speckled with slip-ups not the likes of which we look back on with fond, simple smiles. (See The White Tape.) Undermind was the follow-up, and we were told that this was the sound of the new, mature Phish. I don’t think anybody bought into that idea, even if the album has the potential to grow on persistent listeners in an ok way. Like on RR, Mike’s composition (“Round Room” and “Mock Song,” and “Access Me”) was flat and Trey’s work sounded like he’d gone off the side of the pool before he reached the deep end. The takeaway points from these two releases are sloppy mix on RR and flatness from Undermind. Both could grow on persistent listeners, but both, like Joy for Sean, were disappointments on first listen. Add to these two Phish’s summer ’09 tour, which both Sean and I attended. The general consensus was that Phish was back and playing strong. Something I noticed listening to the live recordings was the low vocal quality—the singing was bad. Caught up in the moment and a lightning-affected PA, I didn’t notice this at the time, but the released files carried the unmistakable message.

Joy resolves all of the post-Hiatus Phish concerns. This album is immediately listenable, has clean, professional production without being glossy (see Cale & Clapton, The Road to Escondido), has songs with jump and life, has good vocal quality, and is, I dare say, Phishy. Mike’s “Sugar Shack” isn’t bad either. And not that this is the most worthy metric, but if I wanted to play one thing to a new listener as an introduction to Phish and I could only choose between Round Room, Undermind, a summer ’09 tape, and Joy, the latter is the obvious choice.

The second context in which to understand Joy is as a Trey album. Even casual listeners recognize the increased spotlight the guitarist has garnered over the years, and he definitely brought the most to the band throughout its history. Skipping the well-rehearsed background of the formation of Joy (check @MrMiner’s blog), there is a lot of Trey-redemption here. This is particularly relevant to Sean’s take, because I think his views after one listen (which is all I’ve done) stem from the unsatisfying taste of the two closing tracks (that’s side C for you plate-spinners). “Time Turns Elastic” and “Twenty Years Later” do sound like they could fit in on Trey’s solo release Shine, and “TTE” was, in fact, an Anastasio-only composition. The downfall of Shine, in my opinion, was mostly due to the total absence of longtime lyricist Tom Marshall. Joy is about more than Trey’s return to clean, above board living—it’s also about a return of the Anastasio-Marshall team and about the whole band’s return as a functioning, creative unit. Does the album close with its two weakest, longest (basically) tunes? Yes. Even so, the album, on the strength of the first eight numbers, deserves higher marks than Sean finds for it.

To respond briefly to a few outside critics, I agree with Sean that this is not the band’s “Terrapin” (how about Rift?), and I disagree with Billboard when they call this “Phish at its most ambitious” (Big Cypress, Rift, and The Siket Disc all jump to mind).

In closing, I’ll note that I do not live within the primary blast radius of the hipster capital of the world and so do not get all of Sean’s pejorative references to things like pleated pants (I thought those were supposed to be nice!). I catch his drift, though, but I do not think that Phish is off the rails. We may never return to the primordial, oozy days of massive potential evidenced in ’91’s Picture of Nectar, but if Joy is the first chapter of the book entitled “Phish 3.0,” then I’m happy to read on.

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As Phish’s 2013 summer tour turns southward, all indications are that the band is already heating up. I’ll be at both Alpharetta performances this week.

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