Formed in the mid-1980s and fueled by virtuosic musicianship and a bit of chemical lift-off, Phish were undoubtedly the premier jam band in the post-Grateful-Dead era (with all due respect to a one Dave Matthews). For ten years, they soared on the hooves of their extended, brilliant, and oftentimes outrageous live jams. With the release of Billy Breathes
in 1996 however, they came back down to earth a little bit. Trading in acid-trip arrangements and maniacal barbershop quartets in for structure and catchiness, the band moved on from the jam session raw material they had previously recorded and started writing songs.
Perhaps never in the history of music has traditional songwriting been such a radical move. Here’s the real trip, though: Billy Breathes
is arguably the best effort in the Phish catalog.
“Free,” the album’s first single, crashes in on a meaty chord that tolls like a great bell ringing in the new era of Phish. While they certainly telegraphed their punch with tight, upbeat tracks like “Down With Disease” off of Hoist
, the band on this album is more polished than it ever was. The opening number runs like an overture, laying down the ideas and themes that pop up throughout the rest of the album; Page McConnell’s dancing keyboard lines show up again in almost every tune, while Jon Fishman’s drumming has that sublime barely-noticeable-yet-still-brilliant quality akin to the likes of John Densmore or Chad Smith. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the musicianship on this album is the dynamic between the other two: Mike Gordon’s groove-heavy bass consistently toes the line between rhythm and lead, while Trey Anastasio is either playing a soaring solo or a low-key rhythm part. This is no longer a band jamming based on reactions to each others actions: they all know exactly where they are going in any given song, and as such, have a lot more musical freedom without the risk of losing the original idea.
Of course, this is still Phish, and there are still a few oddities. A few of the slower, more low-key tracks like “Bliss” and “Steep,” despite featuring some interesting ideas, don’t really seem to be anything but drawn-out introductions to the next song. When done right, this technique can be brilliant (Dave Matthews Band used it extensively on “Before These Crowded Streets”), but here it just seems pointless and instead of creating flow, destroys it. On the upside, however, some of the Phishy (for lack of a better word) moments on the album are brilliant: the Latin beat of “Cars Trucks Buses” makes you feel like you’re stuck in the funkiest traffic jam (har har) of all time. And perhaps the closest thing to a typical Phish track on the album, “Theme From the Bottom,” is a bubble-up-and-burst opus that builds up to an exhilarating frenzy that instantly dissolves into a four-part harmony that you can’t help but sing along with.
And then there’s the issue of confidence: whereas in their earlier albums, you got the sense that the band was a bit of a vaudeville act, using their silly antics to keep the constant attention of their audience, the Phish of Billy Breathes
is one that undoubtedly knows what it’s doing. The shrewd departure from their original songwriting process is one piece of evidence, as is the sharpness of the first half of the album, but the majesty of “Prince Caspian” really hammers the idea home. A true barnburner of an album closer in the vein of Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse” or the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the song matures in a little over five minutes in much the same way that the band matured in its ten years of existence at that point: first establishing a groove, then exploring its boundaries, before finally taking complete control of it. When the album fades out in much the same fashion that it faded in, you get the sense of a cohesive work: you forget for a moment that Phish ever did anything before Billy Breathes
, and you really aren’t very concerned with what they do afterwards. For a band renowned for its spacey jams and onstage antics, it’s a weird sense of completion.