Round Room


So Phish are back together again, and they have a new album out - a bit unexpected, this. Was the two-year separation something Phish really needed? This is an easy one to answer. For proof, just (re)listen to the band's last studio CD, Farmhouse (2000): part the effort of a tired group, part in all but name a de facto Trey Anastasio solo album, Farmhouse definitely shows a group in need of a break, even if Live in Vegas - the concert DVD from the tour of the same year - shows that live Phish still had it (besides being an extremely useful learning tool for those of us who have never seen the group in the flesh). Is Round Room any better? This is an easy one, too: as a good point as any, just listen to the album's literal starting point, Pebbles and Marbles: definitely a strong song, its "jam" section easily showing the group as a very tight unit. By the way, the jam part of the song greatly benefits from a fairly simple but highly ingenious technical touch: as the jam progresses we hear more and more of the room sound via the room mikes, and as the individual sounds mesh we have to concentrate harder, so focusing our attention on a musical performance of uncommon power.

Much has been made of the fact that the group recorded and produced the album so quickly: twenty songs learned in eleven days, then four days for recording, about two for overdubbing and a week for mixing. Does it show? Well, yes. There are some bum notes, a few shaky vocal parts, plosives that "pop" and guitar fingerboards that squeak. Some drum parts don't sound quite settled yet, and I suspect they will change after the songs are performed live. But some comments I've read seem to imply that - in a way - listeners have been cheated, and that after a two years' absence the group could have easily made a better, more polished product. And this is a much trickier (and indeed quite interesting) question to investigate, even if judging from some of the comments I've read on the Net I imagine it's one that's not easily accommodated by the strict deadlines of professional writers who don't necessarily have the luxury to ponder this kind of questions.

Round Room is easily recognizable as a Phish album. However, this doesn't necessarily imply that the group has relied on their old bag o' tricks. In fact, when the group moves into familiar territory - as they do on, say, the funky workout 46 Days (a song which has been mentioned by more than one reviewer as being their favourite track on the album, and proof of the group's return to form) well... though it will probably shine in concert, when heard in the context of the new material to me it sounds almost out of place (and maybe even a bit stale). Of course, the four musicians are quite easily recognizable as their old selves. But I think that Trey Anastasio has made quite a conscious effort of not relying too much on his old sounds - in fact, one doesn't get to hear his patented humbucker lead sound till song # 4 (American Cousin); while his beautiful volume swells are given a new meaning by their being placed in the context of Mike Gordon's Mock Song. His guitar solo on Seven Below, with its horn-like phrasing, shows his approach to the instrument doesn't stand still. I obviously don't know if it's the nature of his songwriting that's changed or if the ones that got the green light were simply those that best passed the test of a quick group workout, but I seem to detect a definite Jefferson Airplane vibe on tracks like the melancholic All of These Dreams and the ultimately anthemic Walls of the Cave (think: Volunteers, the album that featured the late, great Nicky Hopkins on piano); and I think that Waves - the last song on Round Room - would have not sounded out of place on Hot Tuna's Burgers.

The studio is not necessarily the best place to make music. This was exactly Robert Fripp's opinion in the old King Crimson days - and in the studio King Crimson fared much better than Phish. Even Phish most successful studio efforts - the Steve Lillywhite-assisted Billy Breathes (1996), with its layered approach, and the built-from-jams The Story of the Ghost (1998) - appear to lack a not-easily-definable "something". So the question is: has this new, more casual approach better served the material on Round Room? And: would a more polished approach make the feelings expressed in these songs sound more believable? To me it's apparent that the group took the right decision: if the jams sound relaxed and unhurried, it's the songs that have profited the most - see the gentle melancholia of Anything but Me and All of These Dreams, the frail beauty of Friday (one of Phish best ballads, it receives an extremely sensitive and appropriately restrained, Ringo-like treatment by Jon Fishman) and Thunderhead.

In a way, Round Room sounds positively old - and definitely out of step with what's on radio. But Phish have always played by a different set of rules. We can only be thankful that a group of their order of magnitude had the courage to do what they regard as best for their music - and in doing so make us question our listening habits - in an era of time-aligned tracks, vocal parts that are autotuned to death, and a mastering process that quite often squeezes all dynamics - and so all semblance of life - out of albums in the endless search for "louder than loud".

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2002 | Dec. 22, 2002