- by Kevin Hogan (@radiator9987)
15) Steam - Sigma Oasis
Raw and uncompromising with cryptic lyrics, this is everything Junta wanted to be. The opening seems to rise like the steam of the song’s title before we are given one of Tom Marshalls most relatable myth/story-type lyrics. The band is obviously comfortable in the song and it seems to move along effortlessly. The addition of background singers and the effects on Anastasio’s voice are the payoff for years of failed attempts at similar tricks in the studio.
14) Julius - Hoist
When Phish uses the studio correctly, to augment and flesh out songs, they have had great results. Here, horns, courtesy of Tower Of Power, punctuate Anastasio’s simple riff that switches from acoustic to electric and back during the song. Also, the addition of members of Sly Stone’s band adds to the big production Stax like quality of the vocals and overall recording.
13) Taste - Billy Breathes
This is a song that went through multiple incarnations live before being set as it appears on Billy Breathes. It is a little Prog, a little Zappa, and a little XTC, who Lillywhite had also worked with, swirling along with unintelligible lyrics. On a technical level, there is a great separation between Fishman’s drums and Page’s piano as they build on Gordon’s bass. Steve Lilywhite, again, adds a deep warmth with his production, coaxing the best from the band.
12) Fluffhead - Junta
Several times during their career Phish has taken a few disparate musical thoughts and combined them into a longer song. This may be the most successful of these attempts. The juxtaposition of Gordon’s bass and the acoustic combination of Anastasio’s guitar and McConnel’s piano creates a unique dynamic. It really is amazing this is from a debut album. The only knock is the ending falls a little flat without a wild adoring crowd pushing the energy higher.
11) Fast Enough for You - Rift
Sad, sparse, and full of raw nerves, Phish’s first foray into a ‘meaningful’ song is brilliantly placed as the second song on Rift. Sitting as a calm before the coming storm that emerges as it ends. Each instrument is given space to breathe and the song has a country feel, courtesy of Gordon Stone’s pedal steel, drawing out the bittersweet sentiment of the lyrics. This recording shows a band with the potential to break free of the jam band label, feeling like it would be as comfortable on a Wilco album as a Phish album.
10) Pebbles and Marbles - Round Room
This one marked a shift in the band’s take on a composed piece, borrowing from an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer interpretation of the American songbook. The excessive aspects of the band serve them well here, making the sum of the parts greater than any individual performance. The post-Prog tone they had begun experimenting with in 2.0 is preserved here for posterity and it is one of the best things they recorded post 1.0.
9) The Line - Fuego
If Phish was ever going to write a hit for Adult Alternative Radio this was it. Weirdly inspirational lyrics that have an inverted zen with a tight melody. Bob Ezrin captures the finely tuned pop sensibility of the song and the execution has a slinky lightness that is pensive, like the singer baring his soul. This is another of the long list of studio cuts driven by McConnell’s piano, punctuating the songs last 2 minutes brilliantly. The strength of this cut lies in what it is often panned for, being a song that leaves no room for improvisation, existing best encapsulated on a mediocre album where it can shine.
8) Ghost - Story Of The Ghost
Eno’s influence is all over this one, sounding like something constructed from the cutting room floor of Talking Heads Remain In Light sessions. The beauty here is the lyrics drive the song before Mike Gordon’s bass makes a statement of its own. Anastasio's guitar provides washes of ambiance proving the musical intelligence of the band. This album marked a shift for the band musically on many levels, most notably the addition of slow-burning funk grooves like this.
7) Petrichor - Big Boat
Remember this is about the studio and nowhere does Bob Ezrin’s heavy hand serve the band better than on Big Boat’s closing number Petrichor. It sounds like a lost Peter Gabriel era Genesis song, with all the same quirky brilliance. The coolness of Ezrin’s production heightens the feeling of a rain-filled world found in the lyrics. This production philosophy also helps capture the subtleties of the composed parts and creates a clear separation between the layers of instruments. It is a glimpse of what could be possible with the right producer behind the helm for the right song. As for live, well…...
6) Run Like an Antelope - Lawn Boy
Of all the extended compositions on the Lawn Boy album, this proto-prog rave-up seems to work best. The songs only lyrics start at 8 minutes in, leaving Anastasio and company plenty of time to explore the basic structure. They weave through several moods at a more and more accelerated pace that sees the band become unhinged as if total chaos is imminent before a beautifully weird blow-out leads to the minimal lyrics. This is the standout cut on Lawn Boy, providing an invaluable glimpse into early Phish.
5) If I Could - Hoist
Fresh off their bluegrass crash course with the Rev. Jeff Moser, Phish put their learning to good use with Alisson Kraus on this gospel-like ballad. Perhaps Anastasio’s most affecting lyric, written for first fan Amy Skelton, shows a deftness and maturity not usually found with Phish lyrics. The musical depth is built on McConnell’s swelling organ and honky-tonk piano. Kraus's vocals, full of hopeful weariness, provides the perfect counterpoint to Anastasio’s vocal phrasing. It ends in a glorious rush of strings, letting the world know Phish is more than just a jam band.
4) Maze - Rift
From one of their strongest studio efforts, Barry Beckett captures evil Phish like no one else did until 2020’s Sigma Oasis. This is the first nightmare we encounter in Rift’s song cycle and the band plays with a frantic, interlocking madness like some experimental-jazz/metal demon. The longest song on Rift, Maze, gives the band plenty of time to explore the jazzy darkness. Anastasio and Gordon are in synchronized lockstep over McConnell’s Hammond Organ and Fishman’s frantic hi-hat, while the lyrics recount the paranoia found in the music.
3) Thread - Sigma Oasis
While Everything’s Right suffers from its length, Thread makes use of every minute to amazing effect. A companion piece to Steam and Part 3 of a trilogy that includes the unreleased Epitaph, it is a Prog Metal masterpiece. Anastasio angrily hammers away on his guitar, summoning the spirit of Hendrix, Zappa and Fripp into an extended solo that is prog, metal and punk, sometimes in a single run. McConnell pounds a repetitive figure on his piano as the rhythm section barely holds the song together until for a few brief seconds they find the original riff to end the song. Again, Vance Powell deftly takes the raw power of live Phish and crafts it into one of Phish’s strongest studio performances.
2) The Divided Sky - Junta
One of Phish’s crowning achievements, the opening track on side 2 of Junta, Anastasio’s most perfectly composed piece, is captured perfectly by Gordon Hookailo. The song has several parts, each having a different flavor, most notably the palindrome section after the Divided Sky chant. The intricate composition’s production on Junta sees Anastasio, Gordon, and McConnell fully interlock creating a lush soundscape over Fishman’s steady hand. This is Phish at their meandering psychedelic best.
1) Billy Breathes - Billy Breathes
The culmination of everything they had learned in the studio, this one is Beatlesque and Steve Lillywhite was their George Martin. Written about Anastasio’s newborn daughter, it has a timeless quality like a lazy afternoon. The heart-warming vocal communicates the depth of his love for Billy over the sparse instrumentation where the spaces between the notes shine as much as the notes themselves.