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Published: 2002/12/22
by Jesse Jarnow

Round Room – Phish

Elektra Records 62850

Besides an immediate half-drunken listen the night I got
it, my copy of Round Room sat on top of my stereo for a week or two. I was kind of scared of
it, actually. I don't think I wanted to come to any judgment about
it. It would ruin the fantasy of Phish's open-ended departure. Oddly enough,
after listening to it a dozen or so more times, it feels like exactly
the sort of album that deserves a fan's relaxed ear, and one that really
fights hard against being judged.

Round Room, more than anything else, sounds like an
illicit recording, like a leaked rehearsal tape. Actually, I think I'd like
it better if I'd paid for it. The gesture of putting out an intentionally
unfinished and substandard record for the big comeback would've felt more
rebellious. The band is sloppy as all hell, and the recording is similarly
loose. Count-offs and vocal miscues are left intact, and – other than an
acoustic guitar in one or two places and a few semi-successful sound effects – the album sounds as if it is without overdubs. Much has been made of the
fact that the album was recorded in four days after Phish had barely played
together for two years. It is a stigma the album will forever be branded
with, and – even if one can separate the myth that has already been built to
shield the album – it's a stigma that's imprinted in the music.

In their absence from the touring circuit, Phish released 16 live albums,
each documenting a complete show. The discs contained their fair share of
bummers, as well as a good number of mystically wonderful jams. That was
exactly the point. For a band that means so many things to so many different
people, nobody wanted to step up and say "I have the balls to decide what is
good". This attitude was reflected in the choice not to excerpt the
highlights, and it is precisely the appeal of Phish to many people. But it
can be a foreboding attitude — playing the highest possible status by
playing the lowest status. In that sense, Round Room is an exact
continuation – a perfectly logical next step – from the 16 albums that
Phish "made" during their hiatus.

So it's sloppy. Big deal. Phish have always been democratic, trying out
about a dozen different approaches to album-making in around as many
attempts. What has been interesting to watch is the relationship between the
songs and the arrangements they've gotten. In this case, the music is
treated as Just Another Batch of songs on Just Another Album. All of this
actually adds up to the opposite effect of most Phish releases. Most of
Phish's albums have been filled with short versions of the songs that make
it obvious that they are meant to be expanded. With Round Room, one
actually imagines how the songs might contract, what sections might
be tightened, what choruses might be eliminated. It's a new kind of
potential, and one that actually capitalizes on the Live Phish albums
nicely.

Unfortunately, it's a potential that will likely never be realized, short of
the band releasing the material on live albums (probably); running their
version of a remix contest where fans get to create their own edits of the
material (not bloody likely); or deciding that they want to make the album
better, rerecording it, recalling the previous copies, and putting out an
improved version (hey, why not?). It's instructional to gauge the critical
reception the disc is getting. So far – at least in the sense that most of
the reviews (this one included) seem to be focused on rationalization and
justification for the album's circumstances – it seems as if Phish has the
upper hand. By stating and restating the story of the album's creation,
people are being forced to consider it on Phish's terms. In the grand scheme
of things, though, that's all just a gimmick. Phish put out an album that
contains almost 80 minutes of music. That shouldn't be forgotten amidst the
anti-hype.

The album does have its moments of glistening pleasure: Trey
Anastasio's vocal entrance on the opening "Pebbles and Marbles"; the sublime
quiet of the cricket-infused verse of "Seven Below" (not to mention Page
McConnell's subtly demented restatement of the melody just before the band
swerves into the jam); the angularly surreal grace of the title track's
bridge; hearing the band semi-successfully strain for grandeur on "Walls of
the Cave" and "Pebbles and Marbles". Mostly, though, the album just sounds
like Phish, and that might be its most damning characteristic. With two
years off to rewrite the book, they've instead turned in what amounts to the
next chapter.

In some ways, Phish has always been obsessed with age. When they were
younger, they performed complex fugues and multi-part suites, practically
begging people to take them seriously on a musical level, despite the fact
that they were a bunch of kids. Many of Phish's more unpopular decisions
have come from a line of reasoning that seems to amount to "well, this is
how normal adults do it". This seems to be a decision entirely of their own
making: they threw themselves into the fire, booked a tour, created a
spontaneous deadline, and crammed two years of leisurely relaxation into
four days of recording. They had all the time in the world to invent
something the world had never heard before, but they discovered that they're
still just Phish.

At least in terms of vibe, Round Room sounds like Sonic Youth's
Murray Street or any random Neil Young album. There is something
about the production and the songwriting that seems to suggest the idea of
dignity — which is an odd sensation to associate with rock music. It's in
the way the music builds (slow rhythms, getting louder), the way the guitar
tones sound (pastel-like, never too sharp), the way the melodies are
constructed (quietly, with sustained phrasing).

Does it achieve this idea of dignity? Sure. As a friend said, there's
nothing on this album that one would want to play for somebody who'd never
heard Phish before. With the sympathy (and open ears) that can only be given
by legions of already devoted fans, the album only exists in the context of
their other music, as a result of their other music. It's never a
matter of whether a song is just good or bad, but how it functions in
relationship to the rest of their body of work.

For a band that's going on 20 years old, that does something weird to
anything new. As such, Round Room works best as a curiosity deeply
insulted and heartily cursed, buried in the catalogue, and rediscovered when
one's expectations of it have been so diminished that album is little more
than a hiccup of a memory…

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