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Phish: Story of the Ghost

In Trey Anastasio’s own words, from an interview he had with Marty Hughley of “The Oregonian” staff: “We’ve just finished an album called “The Story of the Ghost,” which is coming out in October. There has always been a discrepancy between the live thing and the albums, and we’ve wondered how to overcome that. So what we did was we went in for about eight days, two long weekends at Bearsville in Studio A, and jammed; 20 hours of jamming onto multi-track tape. And then we spent our last tour of Europe listening back to the stuff until we found the 60 minutes or so that seemed to be transcendent.

“Then we went out to this old farmhouse that we rented in northern Vermont, and made up songs around these jams. We recorded the vocals on 8-track tape. When we went in to do the album, we transferred everything over onto multi-track. So what you’ve got on the new album is the original jam and the original vocals, and it seems to us to have that spark that the other albums were lacking. There’s something that happens when you get in the studio and you’ve rehearsed something and that light goes on; it’s hard to get over it. So what we got instead was an album that was pieced together in the studio but is made up of elements that were laid down as they were discovered.”

Charlie: Phish’s new CD captures some of the beauty of the band’s improvisationally skilled live gigs, and combines it with the professional, slick mixing one expects from studio releases. I’m still enjoying it immensely after having listened to it repeatedly for weeks. The mix is excellent, the progression of songs smooth, the overall feel groovy!

Syd: I find it both fun and frustrating. The overall feel of the album is looser than Billy Breathes, though the production is very similar (with slightly more emphasis on Mike which sounds GREAT). Structurally, I would draw the closest comparison to PoN with an emphasis on shorter songs that vary widely from one another—14 tracks and only 4 exceed the 4 minute mark. Therein lies my biggest complaint about SOTG—many of the songs are just too damn short. It is particularly frustrating in that the disc is only 50 minutes long and some of the songs could have easily been extended. There are also a couple of filler tunes that I wish had been eliminated in favor of some of the songs that didn’t make it like Tube or NICU.

Charlie: I agree that it is short, and would have loved to have longer versions of Ghost and Moma Dance (in particular) on this disc. But all things considered, this is probably my favorite Phish “studio” release. I’ve already listened to it more than I have Rift, Hoist, Billy Breathes, and PoN combined. The songs grow on me more and more (even Fikus, which I didn’t like hearing over summer ’98). Let’s run through the tracks.

Syd: If we are to believe that the band essentially carved many hours of jamming down to their most satisfying moments and later added vocals and fixed up the rough spots, Ghost — the first song featured on the disc — is an example of how that approach can work well. While certainly not one of the mindblowing live versions in terms of extended jamming, Phish has managed to create a carefully balanced micro-epic with this studio version. It actually is one of the longer songs on the record at 3:51, but while I would have liked it to be longer, it doesn’t leave me feeling like the best elements of the song have been completely ignored. The mix is great (as it is on the entire album) and every nuance of each player comes through nicely.

Charlie: Agreed completely. It is a fantastic opening to the disc, even though it might take The Typical Fan some time to get used to only a 3:51 version.

Syd: I like Birds of a Feather. I only have the Nassau and Providence versions to compare it to, but it is pretty much as it sounds live. Again, it is one of the longer songs on the record, though the fade out at the end hints at what could have been a very cool jam.

Charlie: BOAF still reminds me of the Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless,” one of my personal favorite songs, so I’m basically in agreement with you. I think this SOTG version is very tight, but again, given its short length, it’s difficult for me to really appreciate it. A fan of the surprisingly short summer BOAF’s will likely be pleased to have a “studio” version remarkably similar to the neatly-jammed song that they fell in love with.

Syd: Meat is the first of the six “ditties” on the album which are under three minutes long. It’s a funky groove with no real solos to speak of. I find this track a bit unfocused, the vocals (particularly the processed background vocals) somewhat annoying and the overall feel of the track thin. Throwaway song IMNSHO. Let’s see what it becomes in a live context…

Charlie: Meat would be one of my favorite Phish songs and a real tribute to JAMES BROWN if it were only twice as fast as it currently gets played (and is played on SOTG). It’s toooooo sloooooow.

Syd: I had originally said that Guyute is by far the highlight of the album. Not so. It certainly is a highlight, and the band doesn’t compose tunes like this much anymore so it’s inclusion on a studio release is cause for a smile. Not that it’s all that different from the live versions, except without the flubs that I’ve come to expect. (Hey, it’s a BITCH of a song to play so I shouldn’t be so critical). Every nuance comes through clearly, with all instruments will mixed and balanced. And Fishman’s drumming just kills me! Next to Taste, this is by far Phish’s deepest foray into progressive rock which of course is guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of the Sydster! I’m very psyched to have a cleanly played well-mixed version of this on CD!

Charlie: This Guyute is fantastic! Though a highlight, the real highlight of this album is the flow from song to song. This could be the closest Phish ever gets to having a “Dark Side of the Moon” release. Rift was certainly a “concept” album with great flow, too, but SOTG similarly seems to tell a story (and one I find more musically engaging to listen to than “Rift”).

Syd: I have a hard time feeling that SOTG flows better than Rift. As a concept album, Rift succeeds on many many levels, and to date remains my personal favorite Phish studio project. I think SOTG is very true to the current sound of Phish; much like Rift was at the time of it’s release. SOTG is light years ahead of any prior studio efforts from Phish in terms of production, mix and engineering, all of which are immaculate! I can’t rave about the mix enough—the Mike and Fish fans are going to have severe outfreakage upon hearing SOTG.

Charlie: They certainly will!

Syd: As for Fikus: Pukus. Barfus. Lameus. Dog shit would be step up. A study in inane lyrics and low end sounds. At 2:20, it’s too long. If I allow myself to think that instead of extending the jam at the end of BOAF they put this piece of crap on the record, I want to go on a destructive rampage, leaving all of Manhattan in heaps of smoldering rubble. Fortunately, CD players can be programmed to skip over certain songs.

Charlie: At first I too wasn’t happy with Fikus, but (like a fungus) it has grown on me. I think it adds creepiness to the album (what one might expect in light of the album’s title). It’s yet another queer offering from Mike. One I might not want to hear live, but which I think works within the scheme of this disc.

Syd: Shafty is the retooled Oblivious Fool. It has a neat feel to it. In tempo and vocal delivery it is reminiscent of NICU. But it almost sounds as if the boys rushed through this one a bit. Not a bad song, but certainly not an album highlight. Extended jam possibilities are present.

Charlie: I really liked the old Oblivious Fool, but this version segues smoothly out of Fikus, works well after Fikus, and, like Fikus, adds a spooky flavor to the CD. Again, I think it fits into the overall flow of the album well, even if it isn’t a tune I would want to hear live. Limb by Limb, on the other hand, is a tune I love both live AND on this disc! What an excellent little version!! I think if ANYTHING on this disc should get radio airplay, LIMB IS THE TUNE. This version of Limb could be a HIT!

Syd: Fishman just RULES this Limb by Limb — the drumming is SUPERB!! I love all the live versions of this tune that I’ve heard, and while I prefer many of them to this version, the SOTG version doesn’t disappoint. It has certain elements of both Taste and Theme From The Bottom to my ears. The Trey/Mike interplay towards the end is magnificent (though waaaaaaay to short). A winner overall!

Charlie: I really love the Frankie Sez on this disc, too. I’ve loved this song since I first heard it. The “Mind Left Body Jam” descending progression is prominent throughout, and brings tingles up and down my spine. Can’t get enough of this tune!!

Syd: I didn’t really care for this tune when I saw it at Nassau, but having listened to SOTG several times now, it has grown on me. Page’s vocals are nice. I hope the jam potential of this song becomes fully realized in a live context.

Charlie: I never liked Brian & Robert from what I’ve heard of the summer ’98 versions, but, again, I think this song works within the “studio” context of this album. It fits right in. It isn’t something I would care to ever hear live, though.

Syd: I could easily live without Brian & Robert, though it isn’t the musical horror that Fikus is. (Have I mentioned that I don’t particularly care for Fikus?). The next tune on the disc — Water In The Sky — is pleasant enough, but nothing about it really stands out to me, either. The first strains of this tune in a live setting will send me headed for the hot dog stand…

Charlie: Well, I dig this version of WITS. Like the versions performed this past summer, it is more upbeat and joyous than the early, mellow versions. It has grown on me (and fwiw, I don’t think you’d have the TIME to get a dog during this tune!).

Syd: As for Roggae, the first few times I heard it, I just didn’t get it. But now it has clicked for me in a big way and I think this song is TREMENDOUS. I’m having sick fantasies about 20 minute groovy instrumental outros of this tune…

Charlie: I LOVE ROGGAE!!! LOVE IT!!! =^] Like Frankie Sez, I love everything about this beautiful song. It makes my soul swirl. It’s a karmic GIFT from Phish to me. The melody line makes me wanna dance about architecture…

Syd: But what about Wading In The Velvet Sea?? If this gets played back to back with Water In The Sky, I could get a hot dog AND have time to pee. Not my fave Phish ballad, and though Trey has a brief emotive solo at the end, it just doesn’t do much for me.

Charlie: I’ve never been a big fan of this repetitive-but-mellifluous tune, but I respect many a person who loves it. And those people will be thrilled to learn that this is one of the longest tunes on the disc. As for those who aren’t charmed by this tune, I think it fits in with the overall vibe of this record. I have almost never skipped over it when I’ve listened to the album.

Syd: Moma Dance is a mixed bag for me. Black Eyed Katy, while certainly not groundbreaking in the funk genre, was one of Phish’s finest funk jam moments in ’97. I could’ve sat through an entire set of a BEK jam and likely would’ve been pleased.

Charlie: I love BEK! [insert giddy fan boy jumping up and down here]

Syd: And Moma Dance is basically BEK with lyrics. But what have they done with “Moma Dance” on SOTG? They’ve faded the song in from what sounds like a great groove (and who knows how long it had been going on before the fade), added lyrics (that are not bad and well delivered in the context of the jam), and then faded the song out just when the jam really could have taken hold. The lyrics to Ghost make a reprise during the outro of the song. The overall groove is really solid, but somehow it just isn’t as satisfying as the instrumental BEK of ye olde days.

Charlie: Although I’m tempted to agree, since I tend to prefer instrumentals as a rule, I really dig these goofy Moma Dance lyrics within the context of this funky BEK-groove. This SOTG version, though short, is still smoking, imo! I’ve caught myself putting it as filler on many a tape.

Syd: The disc closes with “End of Session,” a 1:54 piece with lyrics dealing with the sun and closing in on the earth. Atmospheric but VERY out of place with the rest of the album.

Charlie: “End of Session” sounded strange to me when I first listened to it (after listening to the album all the way through), admittedly, but like several other tunes on this disc, it has grown on me. And it is obviously only intended to be played when one is listening to the album as a whole. I mean, I doubt there will be anyone out there who will want to play “End of Session” over and over again. I think it works. Can’t articulate why, exactly. Do I think it closes this Ghost Story with a rhetorical question?

Syd: Well, whatever Charlie. There is NO obvious radio material here at ANY format (to my ears anyway), though I would expect some Active Rock interest in BOAF. As Phish has done historically, it will do well out of the gate with a signifcant drop off in sales by week 8.

Charlie: BOAF has already been played on the radio in Boston, from what I’ve heard. If it were up to me, I’d play Limb by Limb on my station every hour for a few days at least.

Syd: I had VERY high expectations for this album so my slight disappointment is no surprise. I’m disappointed at the exclusion of Tube, NICU and Piper. I had actually fantasized about a 74 minute CD containing one jam of Tube->BEK->Ghost->Piper->NICU->BOAF and Guyute—if you think that’s unrealistic you should hear some of the fantasies I’ve had about Stephanie Seymour :) There are several tracks that do work really well, and I LOVE the production and the mix. And Guyute kicks MUCH ass!

Charlie: My expectations were really low. Not because I didn’t think Phish had it in them to produce a studio CD I would like, but because I figured that the lower my expectations, the more likely I would be to be pleasantly surprised. And I have been very pleasantly surprised. This is my favorite Phish CD.. along with Junta and Lawn Boy.

Syd: I think it would be great if Phish were to offer — via mail order — a truly “live version” of SOTG which would contain what the band felt were the best live versions of all the tracks that appeared on the studio release (it would almost certainly be a double CD).

Charlie: That would be wonderful! Or, better yet, I hope Phish chooses to play “Story of the Ghost” in a set, the same way they played all of Hoist in a set in June 1994. (and that I’m THERE!) This is one of the best CD’s from a “rock band” that I’ve heard from the 1990’s. Maybe they should kiss their own ass — honor themselves — and play “Story of the Ghost” for the second set on 10/31/98. Won’t happen, but I’d prefer it to the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique.”

Syd: I think SOTG as a second set would RULE, but I agree—‘tis unlikely. I’m still hoping for King Crimson’s “Discipline” ;) I suppose I find my overall take on SOTG to be one of confusion—reasonably happy confusion, but confusion nonetheless. If the band is trying to capture their live sound in the studio, why not just release live material? Perhaps the band feels compelled to try and create an “idealized” studio version so that a larger audience of fans has a frame of reference to draw from.

Charlie: I don’t know. But my overall take is one of MERRIMENT. I love listening to this disc and continue to spin it. I certainly encourage all those interested in Phish to purchase it by any means necessary (even those of you, who, like me, tend not to go for studio releases, as a rule).

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