Published Oct 05, 2016There are (at least) two distinct kinds of Phish fans: fans who pay attention to their studio albums, and those who don't. Place me firmly in the latter camp.
While the venerable Vermont four-piece have rarely played a concert in their 30-plus years on the road that, in my estimation, wasn't worth your time and concentration, their 13 studio albums over the same period have generally ranged from inessential to pointless. (If we're fighting about this, I'll make room for 1993's Rift and 1994's Hoist, both of which mostly work.)
But this is no backhanded compliment; Phish are perhaps the single most consistently excellent and worthy live act of my lifetime. Their onstage chemistry is astonishing, and the genius of their spontaneous, unarranged excursions is unparalleled in rock'n'roll. They just can't seem to bottle that energy, that unique high-wire performance, in the studio. Their records force us to focus on their often merely okay songs; live, we are faced with their technical mastery and improvisational wizardry.
On Big Boat, their rambling new album, veteran producer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed) does his best to emphasize the band's considerable knack for genre-bending exercises. From the Memphis soul of "Tide Turns" to the space-rock of "Waking Up Dead," the gumbo funk of "No Men in No Man's Land" to the multi-part prog rock of "Petrichor," Big Boat offers the whole 32 flavours. But, while each of these presents a solid foundation for future jamming, too few of them work as songs.
The best of the lot, and high water mark for a Phish studio record in almost 20 years, is the earnest lament "Miss You." Sung with palpable emotion by Trey Anastasio, this poignant requiem for a lost friend sneaks up on you, culminating in a gorgeous, soaring instrumental outro. Can't wait to hear them play it live. (Jemp)