Phish is halfway through summer tour. While the band is on a five-day jaunt out west to throw down a pair of shows at the Gorge and then tour south, it is a good time to reflect on how things have gone so far. Trey’s playing has sounded pretty stellar. His tone and precision has been pretty top notch which has been on display from the beginning of the tour, something I’ve had my ear on since Wrigley’s “Divided Sky” and “Good Times, Bad Times”. Despite his great sound I also agree with many people that the overall setlists seem to be different from the more jam-heavy efforts of last year, featuring a bit less creative improv.
However, aside from everything offered above, I cannot seem to get away from one nagging issue. Just a couple of days before tour started in St. Paul Mike was interviewed by the local Star Tribune newspaper. In the interview he talks about new material they have been working on for a new album, the material Trey had earlier mentioned they’d be testing out on summer tour. Mike said how they were trying to “carve the fluff and wordplay” away from the new songs. This is something fans like myself rejoiced in hearing since it can be argued too many 3.0 songs feature excessive wordiness, literalness, and cheesy themes. Mike went on to say that the new material will be “meaty” , not “ballads or sappy”. This was exciting news! While there’s been some great songs that have come since 2009, there’s also been a massive amount of “sappy” ballads…songs that drip with sentimentality, a quality most phans would agree isn’t Phish’s strong suit or what they care to hear from Phish (Trey’s voice doesn’t help); think “Summer of ’89”, “Joy”, “Show of Life”, “Devotion to a Dream”, and so on.
I’d go on to argue that this is the same reason the Chilling, Thrilling Halloween songs have been received with such excitement every time they get stage time, it gives us a whiff of raw Phish, the Phish so many of us fell in love with, the Phish that doesn’t rely on emotional lyrics but rather bad-ass instrumentals with often irrelevant or cryptic lyrics. Phish is better at evoking emotion with their instruments, not their lyrics.
So why did Mike say this? Mike usually means what he says and, if anyone is familiar with what the Mike Gordon Band throws down, there’s no way he could interpret the new material they have been playing as “meaty” or not being “sappy”. Surely most of these songs do not match Mike’s current tastes in songwriting, again, if we compare it to MGB where he has full control. Did he intentionally get our hopes up so we would collectively tweet to @treyanastasio “Trey, stop attempting to sing about love and loneliness and just throw down!”? Is he making the ultimate passive-aggressive backhand to his fellow band mate? Is Meatygate the straw that will break the back of this band once and for all?! Okay, let’s all calm down here.
Here are the seven new songs they have played so far to judge just how “meaty” and without “fluff” or “wordplay” they are (stop reading now if you’re sensitive to Phish criticism):
“Miss You” – This rock ballad about “days turning to years” (a common theme for Trey) and missing someone has a slow, driving, and simple drumbeat supporting it. There’s a brief guitar solo in the middle and at the end. It’s completely typical of a 3.0 song, it’s very sappy, and not meaty at all. Next.
“Tide Turns” – This slow ballad features Trey singing about being “lost in the darkness” and “loneliness cutting so deep”, it’s a cliché of all the cheesy Trey songs of 3.0.
“Friends” – If this piece was strictly instrumental, it could be cool. It almost sounds like “Sparks” with the rolling drums–perhaps a Fishman song? None of that matters however because the lyrics are absolutely abysmal. The lyrics are so bad, I’d frantically sprint across the room of a party to hit ‘next’ on the playlist in fear some non-phans might hear a bit of it and have their anti-Phish sentiments justified that the band is a complete joke. Aside from the dumb and juvenile title (reminds me of “Party Time”), the lyrics–which are hard to understand because Fishman sings it and his voice is horrid–are like nails on a chalkboard. The song starts with “FRIENDS…..”. I’m honestly embarrassed my favorite band wrote and played this song.
“Let’s Go” – This is likely a Mike song. It’s an upbeat song with a “let’s go!” battle cry. Perhaps it could make for a solid show opener and there’s [the easy possibility for an] open end that starts off with an excellent opportunity for a fiery guitar solo which could lead to bigger things. It’s an okay song but, again, the lyrics seem pedestrian and the instrumentals seem no different than a handful of other songs they already have.
The Not-So-Bad New Songs
“Breath and Burning” – This wordy song’s lyrics have some Phishy elements thankfully, they are unique and clever. Also fun about it, Trey invokes the phan idiom “rage with Page”. While Trey, again, seems to be singing about living life to the fullest as time keeps ticking (a theme he cannot seem to escape), this song seems to have staying power, especially since it’s the only new song so far that they have decided to take for a spin with a true type-II jam at Mann.
“Things People Do” – This song is actually pretty refreshing to hear. It is the first 3.0 song that is written in Phish’s classic ‘bluegrass’ style. In fact, I can’t even think of what the last bluegrass-style song Phish released was. I’d argue it sounds similar to “My Mind’s Got a Mind of its Own”.
“Waking Up Dead” – This is clearly a Mike song, employing unique instrumentals underneath his patented, ethereal singing about waking up dead (total Mike), a series of drum segments and clever time signature. This song is the most unique out of the bunch, and I particularly like the eerie, trancey guitar and Moog licks at the end (sounding like the bastard son of Tweeprise). However, as history shows us, Mike songs never get too much traction. Rarely do they break out from their composed structure and they usually are kept in the safe confines of 3.0-first-sets.
Overall, Things are Going Well
So, overall, these types of songs are expected from Phish now. The band is getting older and more retrospective, fine. It’s just hard to imagine that Mike seriously thought what he said about the new material going into this tour. Maybe the album he was talking about will be a completely different set of songs? Likely not. I, for one, want MEATY songs with the sap and wordiness CARVED AWAY! Mike knows what phans want at least.
Anyway, the band sounds excellent right now and the shows have been a blast. It will be awesome to see what they do this weekend at the Gorge and the rest of the tour. Stay safe and have fun!