Today, Phish released their first studio album in five years. The album was leaked and subsequently made available for stream over a week ago, giving many of us an early listen. For the first few days, the overwhelming feeling of putting on Phish’s new album was incredible. Throwing on the disc and hearing the intro chords to “Backwards Down the Number Line” brought a feeling that was perfectly in line with the name of the album. Now that the album has had time to set in, I feel I can truly give a proper review.
Overall, the music on Joy is good, and the songs sound very tight and rehearsed. That being said, I am a bit disappointed with the entire album. The main feeling I get when listening, is that the sound is very reminiscent of Trey’s solo material, and the ‘pop’ factor is excruciatingly high. The album lacks the Phishiness that made them who they are. And while they may be going in a new direction, the motivation behind it is unclear. The focus on deeper lyrics with more disernable meanings is obvious in most of the songs. Unlike the previous albums, Joy actually seems to be delivering a message.
The new songs come across as Phish’s attempt to conquer the radio waves. Starting with Hoist, a noticeable attempt was made to shorten songs and make them more radio friendly, and this album appears to have the legs to actually make that leap. With the help of Steve Lillywhite the songs sound very polished, and Trey’s voice sounds perfect, especially with the overdubs. Trey has completely changed his guitar style, and I respect that immensely, but many are itching for that old tone. His solos are unique, and interesting, adding a strong effect to the album. Noticeably absent are any attempts at weirdness, a factor that was present on all of Phish’s prior albums. The songs are straightforward and far more lyrically based.
The major aspect of Joy that stands out is the way they seem to have captured their live sound in some of the songs. The jam on “Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan” sounds live and comes across as a genuine jam. While they remain concise, the feeling of a live jam is present, and that is a notable step Phish has made in their studio recording. The solos in the songs do not seem as rehearsed as previous albums, but instead seem more like they have captured a snapshot from a jam session and fit it into the song. The jams add Phish’s touch to several songs that otherwise seem dominated by Trey’s solo style.
In the past, Trey would go write and record a bunch of songs with Tom Marshall. After recording solo versions, he would take the tracks to Phish, and they would sift through and choose the ones they all agreed on. After going through a Phish transformation the songs would come out completely changed, and far better (listen to the version of “Ghost” from Trampled by Lambs and Pecked by the Dove). On Joy, that is not the case. For example “Light” sounds identical to the way it was played with Trey’s solo band, other than the disjointed introduction part. And “Backwards Down the Number Line” and “Time Turns Elastic” are both fairly similar to the way Trey played them solo. Thus, the overall sound of the album, including the songs we had not heard Trey play with his band, have a similar sound to the past few solo Trey albums. I like Trey’s solo material, but its not the sound I want from Phish.
The flow of the album is odd and lacks the fluidity of their prior releases. I am one of the few people, perhaps the only person outside the band, who actually likes ‘Time Turns Elastic”. I’ll admit that when I first heard of the song, I had much higher expectations, but I enjoy it, for the most part. It follows in Trey’s progressive composition style, and is an original piece of music. However, it simply does not belong on this album. In a mix of pop and short, simple songs, “TTE” stands out as the lone composition. It seems as though they have forced the song into the album, and it makes for a very confusing listen.
Even though the introduction to “Light” is one of the most interesting parts of the album, it sounds like another band played it. It doesn’t have any noticeably Phishy aspects, other than perhaps the drumming. The synth playing is very un-Page-like, and Trey’s feedback sounds too perfect. I get the “U2″ feeling listening to it. The transition is awkward and seems like a separate song.
“Sugar Shack” has grown on me, and I think it is one of the better songs on the album. The odd-timing and quirky rhythm are a nice break from the standard bluesy-rock rhythms. The different sections of the song work well together, and flow back and forth smoothly. “20 Years Later” is an alternative sounding track, with a composed section that leads into a heavy jam. It has a great deal of potential for the future, and adds a nice finish to the album.
Like an average show, an average album will be talked about, and then we’ll move on. These songs have great potential in live shows, and that is what really matters. That said, I’m very excited for Party Time, which I think will be more suited towards the true phan, and is what we have really been waiting for.
Listen to “Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan”, one of my favorite tracks on the new album.
Here’s a video of “20 Years Later” from SPAC 8.16.09., offering a glimpse at the songs potential