Phish, being a jam band, had a very unique songwriting method, with influences from psychoactive substances. Locking themselves in a room, under the influence of cannabis and LSD, Phish wrote entire albums with the aid of such matter. And those albums have gone on to give the northeastern psychedelic/funk jam band the notoriety of being one of the world’s most astonishing, captivating, and intense live acts. Made up of the four college friends Trey Anastasio (guitar/vocals), Mike Gordon (bass), Page McConnell (Keyboards) and Jon Fishman (Drums), Phish has gained infamy as an improvisational magnum opus of American counterculture. Blending elements of funk, psychedelic, rock, folk and bluegrass elements into their music, Phish’s musical catalogue is diverse enough to avoid classification into a single genre. But what is unique about Phish, more so than their juxtaposition of musical styles, is their ability to improvise for elongated amounts of time, while simultaneously avoiding the tedium that many jam bands bring. In 1996, after nearly fifteen years together, Phish released an album entitled Billy Breathes. Enclosed in a peculiar case, adorned with a photo close up of Mike Gordon’s nostrils, Billy Breathes contains some of Phish’s most interesting music. With music that is just as entertaining as it’s artwork (thankfully, Mike Gordon trims the nose hairs), Billy Breathes is essentially Phish’s most accessed album.
Suffice to say, Billy Breathes is an entertaining listen from alpha to omega. Trey Anastasio is an amazingly talented dualist as he coaxes the listeners with his mellowed out, yet gritty voice, whilst providing thick, rich guitar melodies textured in various waves of sound effects. Tremolo, wah wah, and and various degrees of distortion and overdrive accompany Anastasio’s warm, thich hollow body guitar tones. And while his voice is thoroughly capable of driving, higher register runs, Anastasio’s vocals reside in a deeper, mellow groove. Not unlike the guitar work, Mike Gordon’s basslines are somewhat of a staple to the band’s sound. While still remaining as the foundation of the groove that the band works from, Gordon knows how to tweak a simple chord progression into a complex groove, backed by Jon Fishman’s thundering drum work, which takes full advantage of offbeats and double bass work. Page McConnell’s keyboard work is exemplified into a more rudimentary level on studio albums, but his electric organ and keyboard playing are ever present in the sound mix, acting as more so of a medium for groove than anything else. For those of you who have seen or heard Phish’s live sets, songs can be much more accommodating to Page’s keyboard work, especially during long jams. Which leads me to my first unjust whine, making a negative comparison to Phish’s live set. I mean, they’re studio work is good music, but it is too concise and ineptly structured to even be associated with their live sets. As unfair as it may be, it just does not hold up. But on the bright side, it is still creative.
Lyrically, Phish falls nothing short of being a band commonly connected to drugs. In fact, most of the lyrics probably originated from LSD induced hallucinations or strange thoughts during a euphoric cannabis high. Even so, Trey Anastasio is a talented writer who has a very skillful touch on imagery. Melodically, Phish is a mind melting phenomenon, where so much sound is created by so little. And that is why so many fans of Phish are coincidentally cannabis consumers. As blunt as it may be, it happens to be a fact. But to keep this from turning into a drug based topic, I will conclude my review on the note that I intended to write this review on in the first place- As good as the music that is on Billy Breathes may be, it lacks the flow and free form improvisation that Phish is famous for. To compensate for it’s lackluster, Billy Breathes keeps void of tedium by making every song accessible and concise enough to appreciate.