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Phish
Joy

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Jesse: Man, I hate to put it like this, but listening to Joy is really bumming me out—like the kind of mid-afternoon mini-life crisis bummed out—and after we finish with this review, there’s a very good chance I won’t ever do it again. (Listen to Joy, that is. I’m sure I’ll be bummed out at other points in the future.) Not to be coy, but I suppose that’s my main complaint. The music just feels so insanely bland, completely without ambition or any real artistic commitment. Where are the grand tricks that made Phish’s old songs so distinct, so outside of the realm of anybody else’s music? The big opening riffs? The puzzling guitar figures that gave the songs narrative inevitability? Besides “Time Turns Elastic,” which is 13 minutes and deserves its own discussion, the album’s other nine songs are grooves, almost nothing more. New but not new at all.

Carol: First off, Joy is a “Phish album.” That descriptive is tantamount to “Angelic devil” or “Pregnant virgin.” There’s always been pointless impossibility to Phish bottling their musical output in the traditional, modern recorded music methods. There’s a soul-sucking quality to their attempts which, ingested on their own from the point of a Live Phish-centered phan, causes the kind of ennui-cum-disgust you’re describing.

Jesse: Well, what about Billy Breathes, the last album they made with Steve Lillywhite (who returns to the boards for the first time since then for Joy), where a semi-failed experiment (“The Blob,” they called it) somehow morphed into that perfect autumnal song-suite on side two? Or the Story of the Ghost / Siket Disc yin/yang combo, where they refined improv into Zen-like slivers, left some alone, and stitched others into tunes? I don’t think Phish studio albums have to be diminished at all. I think they can be real vessels for collaborative creativity.

Carol: You sound how I did when Hoist came out in 1994 — I felt robbed and betrayed by the “simplicity” of the music. So I wonder why, now, can I get with Joy, though it’s as pedestrian, if not more so, than Hoist is in retrospect. (For what it’s worth, I actually like many, though certainly not all, of the tunes on Hoist now. They’ve grown on me.) The reason is crystal clear: there’s an obvious, realist narrative underpinning to Joy, and it’s bound to sound mawkish, to one who isn’t either a) at least open to, or b) fully plugged into, that narrative. It’s the story of the band over the past five years, separately, and now expressed cumulatively, as they are reunited. It’s more of a testimonial, and this is the second point I want to make, the hinge that swings Joy (design flaws and generics aside) into a category apart from all other Phish albums.

Excluding Fishman (though he seems to have been a sort of “glue” between the interactions), there are representative narrative moments on Joy from Trey, Mike, and Page, all of whom went through serious emotional weirdness and upheaval between 2000 and now. The exhortations may be musically unimpressive, and perhaps they should be.

I’m not sure what you mean by “puzzling guitar figures that gave the songs narrative inevitability.” Joy (other than “Time Turns Elastic”) seems to be music solely gathered around a few basic lyrical, even poetic, narratives, not the complex musical narratives for which Phish is known (and loved). They haven’t let the other stuff go, it’s just not what they’re putting out as a “product” on this record.

Jesse: There was an effect that Phish’s music had, even right through the tunes on Undermind (give or take throw-aways like “46 Days”) where the music seemed to exist outside the bounds of normal verse/chorus/verse songwriting, even if it was just an A/B/A form. The structures of the songs held all kinds of surprises, usually driven by really singable guitar melodies. To use an obvious example, the way “You Enjoy Myself” begins, more or less, in the middle of the action, or “Horn,” which begins with that little riff that drops into the verse and then leads into the modulations and stuff, or “Scents and Subtle Sounds,” where the structure builds without repetition to that sparkling finale. From the first note of each of those songs, they carved their own worlds where the ear didn’t quite know what to expect. Like the first line of a story where you can’t stop reading. “Twenty Years Later” (which is probably my favorite tune here) comes closest, I think, when it jumps breathlessly into the first verse and doesn’t let up until just after the two minute mark, when a guitar solo that sounds almost like Trey’s old compositions, leads up into the bridge. (The calypso bridge and multi-tracked chorus on Gordon’s “Sugar Shack” get close, too, resolving into that Frippertronic happy, soaring place they used to go so often, like the dancing snow one can envision during “Seven Below.”)

Musically speaking, it’s the kind of thing that lets you drum along on your chest to the composed parts of “David Bowie,” even if you don’t know the time signature, or the little woodblock break in “Lizards,” or the pleasing way “Limb By Limb” builds to the Trey/Page duet. It’s interesting you bring up Fish, because he really seems to be the missing man here, musically. Maybe I need to listen more closely, but none of these songs have interesting drum parts. Like, if you isolated his playing on many of Phish’s best songs, removing the vocals and the guitar and everything else, you can tell what song they are. I’m not sure if that’s the case here.

There are moments of the old flash, but the music feels incomplete. “Light” begins with a minute-and-a-half of ambient jamminess before the band suddenly charges into a coda, having seemingly skipped over everything in between. “Stealing Time From The Faulty Plan,” even (or especially) with its reference to “a Clif Bar and some cold green tea,” sounds almost like a gritless rendition of the desolation from the last few Bob Dylan albums. It’s a cool riff, f’sure, but the song’s got a blank space where a bridge and three more verses should be, turning instead into an undistinguished guitar solo. I’m just not sure how to relate to this music. It’s a decent, Phish-like punchline and all, but why do I give a shit about going or not going back to Kill Devil Falls?

Carol: I wouldn’t refer to what happens at the beginning of “Light” as “jamminess.” Letting it wash over me initially, and again this morning, it’s an opening, an entre. It’s a curious, embryonic scan of a blurry landscape, or, say, the night sky… tentative, wondrous. Then, like a shooting star, “Light” begins. The first time I saw a shooting star, there was a jolt of excitement… I’d heard about them, but I’d never seen one with my own eyes. It was a sudden, dizzy and giddy feeling. Quite frankly, it reminds me of the day I was in the van on the way up to rehab. Bright, cold February day, the snow reflecting the sun, someone had left a copy of the Daily News in the van. I read as we drove north, the war was beginning, and mine was ending, the result of my surrender. I felt normal, or that, at least, I was heading towards the chance at normalcy I never had access to before.

There’s no sense in expecting the things that happen in live Phish to happen on a Phish album; it doesn’t make sense. “Jamminess” suggests “noodling” to me, and I remember you lamenting early Phish 3.0 as seeming to be of concision rather than convolution. And, if jamming at all, Joy is “in” jamming, not “out” jamming. “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan” is a basic bluesy hobo trip. One doesn’t need to marry it; it’s a mood-setter. The Joy version is not particularly good, but it’s there, and part of the whole.

I look at the narrative of the record loosely as such: Tom Marshall gives Trey a gift as Trey’s emerging from his (almost) killer fog. The gift says, “I’m glad you’re here, feeling better, and are my friend. Remember this thing we do, which we’ve done practically forever? Let’s do it again, and maybe now that you’re changing, we can go back and see what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.” Trey embraced the gift, and along with Marshall came Fish, Gordon and Page, themselves bearing gifts for the convalescent. It was as if Trey had been suffering from a disease, and was on the mend. His increasing strength and profound insights from having survived death permeated his friends’ psyches. On Joy, there are backwards glances (“Backwards Down the Number Line” and “Time Turns Elastic”), glosses on the dark times (“Stealing Time,” “Sugar Shack”), expository thunderstorms of realization (“Light”), ironic elegiac recollections (“I’ve Been Around”), and monumental attestations (“Twenty Years Later”).

The two axles of the album, “Ocelot” and “Kill Devil Falls” are directly related to Trey’s rehabilitation, and his recovery as it stands, and as he’ll continue to keep working on it (as long as he does). My interpretation is biased.

Like the “Ocelot,” in the nudity (new-ditty?) of daily life without drugs and booze, I was constantly fighting slipping into isolation. What saved me were the people I chose to seek help from, a community of other recovering people who understood. They drew me out of myself by suggesting I come out and meet with them regularly, and talk about my shit, rather than trying to deal with stuff alone. They told me to stay in the middle of the herd where it was safe, not on the outskirts where I could get picked off by my obsessively negative tendencies. They said “trust the process,” which sounded a lot to me like “Surrender to the Flow,” so I tried my best to do that, and to embrace what was going on, since it beat the shit out of the miserable, surly mess I’d come from, trusting no one, knowing nothing, having even less than nothing. They told me life would continue to get better, that I could have faith in that if nothing else, as long as I didn’t backslide, was honest with myself and others about the good and the bad in my life, and took some time to help others like myself. They told me I only had to be willing to have the faith, that it didn’t have to come from God or religion, and often just looked like me living an honest, whole, soulful and productive life a day at a time, without expectations or self-recrimination.

Now, on most days, I can come out to play, because I feel like I’m part of the game of life, not a pinch hitter or a bench-sitter.

Jesse: There are all kinds of subtle divisions between jamminess, noodling, soloing, etc.. But, what it comes down to on Joy is that it’s just not heady music. Not that Phish ever claimed to be the great psychedelic hope, but one of their key selling points was their explosive creativity. They reconsidered nearly everything about the music they made, from the rhythms on up. Because of that starting point, though, one of the narratives that runs through their development is a desire for normality and acceptance. (Which certainly resonates with your “Ocelot” interpretation.) But psychoanalyzing Trey just isn’t that fun. That’s not why I listen to music. It’s a natural part of the listening, though, given how public his tribulations have been.

And since you’re being frank, I’ll be likewise frank: I still smoke pot. And Joy is nothing that I’d ever put on to accompany that experience. On one hand, that’s probably a wildly offensive and callous thing to say about the music made by a recently sober musician, especially given what you just wrote. On the other hand, though, he’s also a recently sober musician who happens to be at the helm of a recently revived touring juggernaut that serves as a primary enabler for a lot of people’s own substance use and abuse, which is a pretty complex place to be. Perhaps as a non-sober person, there’s just no way I’m going to be able to relate to the sobriety narrative. (Though, for that matter, I’m not convinced that “Ocelot” isn’t just an intentionally cryptic ditty about a wild cat.)

Ultimately, my problems with Joy aren’t about the lyrics, but just how plain it is. It’s not music that does much for me sober, either. Which is also a callous thing to say, and maybe completely besides the point. I don’t think the album exists to endorse sobriety. I think it exists to be music. Very personal music written for a built-in audience of hundreds of thousands.

Carol: “Kill Devil Falls” is in my top three of new fave Phish tunes, mostly because it just rocks, but also because it tells the tale of the tightrope I walk everyday trying to stay sober. As I see it, that struggle is analogized as a love story, a good girl the protagonist lets get away because he thinks he’s missing something in his old wild life. It’s about sobriety, the constant lure of the familiar past, and succumbing to it by doing what the Ocelot does… holing up and hiding out, hovering outside the herd, then eventually going MIA altogether. He picks up a beer, then suddenly, realizes his girl is gone.

Time passes. He gets a reminder of the good times (the letter). His words meant nothing… empty promises. He doesn’t make any calls, just bounces off the walls, trying to think the problem away. Finally, he convinces himself that since it’s all gone to shit anyway, he might as well go back to “Kill Devil Falls” because surely, this time’s gonna be different, and it “wasn’t so bad” anyway. But the arrogance is pretty obvious; do the same thing as before, get the same thing as before.

Hence, the caveat, “Don’t go back to Kill Devil Falls” — Trey is talking to himself. That’s pretty much why I give a shit about it, on his behalf and my own. And I’m pretty sure no Phish phan wants Trey to get drunk again. Whether he does or doesn’t is out of our hands, as much as whether I do or don’t is out of your hands. It’s between me and my spiritual sources; how badly do I want to keep growing, rather than going back to shrinking? What can I do to reverse the negative tide? Give me the strength to keep walking this path because I don’t wanna go back to my old life, even if it seems like it would be easier…

Jesse: Okay, fair enough. Totally legit interpretation of the tune. And I suppose that’s a human way to look at it: not wanting Trey to get drunk again. But, at the same time, it’s all too vague. I’m just not sold on the story’s darkness. So, the narrator drinks too much and his lover leaves him for it. That’s a bummer. But, as a story, it’s lacking. Obviously, the narrator is a bit oblivious, if the lesson he learns is not to go back to Kill Devil Falls (which is the song’s punchline), but even oblivious narrators can observe more detail than that. What does the bar look like? What’s some small talk he made while he was there? Something maybe more revealing about psyche? And, really, what happened during that week? None of which changes the fact that it’s not very interesting musically. Does it really rock? Maybe inside Phish’s vocabulary, placed at a certain point in a certain set, it rocks. But as an isolated piece of music, it just feels like a boogie with some Trey solos. (And while Trey is a gifted arranger and an even more gifted listener/improviser, he’s an extraordinarily conservative soloist, especially since toning down the showboating of the early years.) I mean, if this is rock, what does that make the Sex Pistols?

“Time Turns Elastic,” meanwhile, is a major work for Anastasio in that it’s very long and he doesn’t write songs that are very long anymore. It’s also one of the few songs on Joy that begins with any kind of momentum. At around the two minute mark, it starts to get going, like maybe it’s going to get going, and maybe it does. It all depends on your definition of getting going. Anastasio and the band hit little transition figures between a bunch of different sections, but almost entirely free of the distinctively melodic counterpoint and playful drama that defined Anastasio’s older work. Like “Light,” though, it has a pretty sweet finale.

Carol: “Time Turns Elastic” is all about dramatic swells and pendulum swings. I love it for that. The prog rock/jazz fusion changes border on cheesy, but in so doing make the band walk a weird new line that is unexpected (is this Phish or Pat Metheny?). A little bizarre in its florid unfamiliarity, there are still little signature harmonic and tonal Phish flourishes (the high pitched “ting!” or Fish’s woodblocks). It’s definitely more rock-operatic than the surrealist symphonics of, say, “Fluffhead.”

It shows a maturation not entirely towards “stodginess” as such, but a solidity that perhaps needs to happen, in order to tolerate the stretching of time… rather than being slippery, the segments are dense but not heavy… I guess “viscous” might be a way to describe it. It can stretch, but yet it recoils, and after a time, the blurry becomes clear, and the thin, thick. By the end of the song’s process of cycling through these themes, it just quivers with the energy and experience, light refracting and swirling around dizzily, repeatedly, almost exhausting in its exhilaration. In the act of retrospect, things are wrung out, old stuck emotions replaced by new opportunities that are sucked into the vacuum.

Jesse: “We want you to be happy,” Phish sing on “Joy.” “This is your song, too,” they add. “Come hide with the herd and float with the flock” they sing in “Ocelot.” It just feels a little transparent and literal, that the main function of these songs, then, is for the band to have things to play live, for the crowd to cheer at appropriate points. And they seem to be playing the shit out of them. Which is awesome for them. It’s really nice to see the band excited about their new music, which (given the album’s title) is about as deep as concept as the album has.

Carol: I haven’t experienced many egregious “Woo!” moments at the lyrics you mentioned, at their recent live shows. I don’t think they serve the purpose you posited. Those songs are sort of vague odes, from Trey to himself, from him (and/or the band, collectively) that says, “We’re doing this for you, and ourselves… for all of us together. We’re glad you’re here, and we’re glad WE’RE here! Let’s have fun, be open, listen, feel, and just dig what’s happening. No expectations.”

Jesse: Okay, even so, that’s an interpretation where the band is directly addressing the audience. While Phish’s relationship with their audience is unparalleled, it still seems a little gauche. Maybe a little too open, not cryptic enough. I liked when Phish were mysterious entities operating from some remote and beautiful corner of New England singing intentionally convoluted lyrics. Suppose those days are gone.

Carol: Expectations do not typically lead to joy, unless, of course, if they’re fulfilled, and sometimes not even then, because at some point it just becomes controlling. Like, the boss expects one to be on time everyday, but the boss can’t expect one to be at work 24 hours a day. Expectations within context—Phish will play music that will, in some way, be awesome—are good for me right now. I am challenged to figure out where / when it’s awesome, and when it’s not, but to look at it in the broader scope of, “This is a relationship. I can’t say ‘eff you’ to my significant other every time they do something I don’t particularly enjoy.” I’ve showed up for my end of the responsibility in my phandom, and am glad I did. I enjoy Joy for what it’s worth. A departure.

Jesse: If one wants to think about it like that, it’s actually a fairly complex concept album, with way more backstory than even (say) French prog band Magma (who sang sci-fi epics in the made-up language of Kobaïan) or one of their other ridiculous comrades. That is: the only real way to enjoy Joy is if one is not only aware of Phish’s massive history but active enough to know how Joy makes sense inside that, what it means that the character of Page McConnell (played by Page McConnell) might sing about “be[ing] around” and why that’s entertaining. That’s an enormous amount of work and subcultural training required for 53 minutes of music. But, hey, Phish were always demanding.

Carol: ...and isn’t that what you said you were looking for?

Jesse: Guess that is what I wanted, complexity and demand. But I’m not sure what I’m walking away with from having spent as much time with this album as I have. I know where Phish is at. And I know it’s not where I’m at, either. It did provoke a very real human response from me—a profound discomfort and displeasure that rolls deeper than merely not liking the music—which is something that a lot of music doesn’t, can’t, do.

Carol: It’s not actually that demanding. It’s deep, but can be apprehended on its own, as a work that lays down a tidy new layer of shiny trinkets, misshapen rocks, colorful globs, plastic polygons and glasses of water (filled to various capacities). I listen to Joy standing among the assembly of objects, and when not slightly annoyed by some of the divergences, I still get very excited, and have to smile, and even to skip (which definitely has happened).

Jesse: Hope my replies here don’t feel too off-putting. Just trying to be honest. I’m glad Phish seem to be happy and healthy, and are making new music together. The shows seem pretty fun, too. If again, not particularly ambitious. (But that’s obviously a whole other discussion.) Listening to Joy for this, I have to admit, there’ve been a few things that’ve grown on me: that “Sugar Shack” bridge, the middle of “Twenty Years Later.” And “Number Line” definitely lodged itself in my head one night when I was out walking around town.

Carol: Not off-putting as such, but it seems there’s not much more of a conversation to have. Your vitriolic conviction about the superiority of music that doesn’t sound like Joy leaves little to converse about. I sort of feel the conversation choked, because there was nothing really left for me to say.

Jesse: I mean, I do think that’s an interesting conversation — somebody who likes Joy trying to convince somebody who doesn’t that it’s really good, and getting into meta-talk about the things one does and doesn’t find interesting about it, and—by extension—music in general. Because it’s not just me you’re trying to convince. I think there are a lot of people who are skeptical about this new music they’re making, people who were big Phishheads but have since moved on and find this all a little silly. But there are also a lot of people who think it’s great. Or maybe you’re just more willing to let that divide lie as it is.

Carol: I find it hard to talk about something I like, with someone that doesn’t like it, because I find the act of convincing somewhat manipulative, and is best exercised within the realm of actions, not preferences. For example: convincing someone to go to the movies. And I mean just the act of going to the movies, without reference to the actual predetermination about the quality of film. I could convince someone to go to the movies with me, but if they didn’t feel like it, I’m done. Time to move on. As far as me trying to convince the churlish hoards of Joy/Phish 3.0 detractors of its/Phish’s persisting qualities as makers of compelling music (obvious in listening to the Summer ’09 shows, to me, anyway), that’s kind of pointless. That would suggest I have some kind of “authority” over peoples’ thoughts, and I don’t.

As for the music (again), dude…“Here, There and Everywhere” is not complex music. Why does everyone kiss The Beatles’ asses, long after half of them are gone, and with a whole bunch of music that is neither difficult to play, nor interpret? What is really that special about a lot of the tunes they wrote? They’re fucking basic as hell. But my God, they’re so earnest. They seem genius in their simplicity. Many of their songs talk about nothing at all, as much as people want to deconstruct them, and mine arcane semantic cuneiform and scrutiny. Later, their songs start to talk about some relevant topics.

So is it the arrangement of notes? Is it the closeness, the aliveness of Phish, the inability to mold or control what it is that their doing, and the fact that their legend status is in flux, and that your (generally speaking) participation may bring something to bear on you (generally speaking) as a phan? Is it a musical divorce, a psychological divorce, or an ideological divorce?

And what happens next? I like Joy, go back to their other stuff, dig deeper into their older stuff, and perch at the edge of my seat for Festival 8, and fall tour. Because Joy is but a sweet confection on the breeze, or the eggy scent of a lingering poot, for those that apprehend it as odious. Will they still come to shows, will they even listen to a few of the new ones? Do they listen to old shows anymore, or are they just done with Phish as an entity (sort of like I pretty much am with The Disco Biscuits)?

I guess what I’m saying by the slew of rhetorical questions is: the reason I appreciate Joy has everything to do with my happiness that the band has reunited. I would venture a (possibly incorrect) guess that their reason for making it in the first place, is the same as my reason for being happy. And, like I said about going to the movies, if there’s anything I could attempt to convince any disgruntled phan to do (for the sake of inevitable argument) is: Get Happy.

That ventured, if a depressed friend said they didn’t want to go to the effin’ movies with me because they felt lost in muck and mire, it would be manipulative, if not totally rude and asinine, to keep hassling them. I might also get popped in the nose. Likewise, I think it’s probably more a pissed-off phan’s job to dig deeper (yes, I am invoking the Cactus) into why they’re so pissed off about Joy. I have better energy to expend liking the new Phish than I do lamenting that which is past. And, being happy about their return, I don’t have to feel nostalgic about the past, or cling to it; I can dip into it and understand it for what it is: an essential part of a still-evolving whole. And I am, despite the ups and down of managing such passionate phandom on a daily basis, beyond honored to be alive to witness this resurgence, to feel like something really powerful is happening, and is about to happen.

Jesse: I do wonder what kind of divorce it is. Probably at least musical and psychological, and maybe a little ideological. Or, if I had to dig deeper, maybe even teleological. Phish’s music was always progressing. And, given Joy, obviously still is. Implicit in that idea was evolution, that it was all pointed somewhere. And I think I’m bummed out that this is where it turned out to point, and maybe a bit confused with myself that I spent as much time chasing it as I did. It happens anytime that a favorite band puts out a new album that I’m not that into, reevaluating what came before. In the case of Phish, that goes to a lot of personal places that have little to do with the music on Joy.

After this, though, it’s not a matter of lamenting what has past, but moving onto other, vital corners of the present, other artists who might be going places that I thought Phish was once pointed towards — like the fucked-up angular African guitar lines, weird harmonies, and odd time signatures of Dirty Projectors, for example. Or Oneida, who just outdistanced even Big Cypress’s sunrise set with a public 11-hour improv session of their own at All Tomorrow’s Parties with members of the Boredoms, Akron/Family, the Flaming Lips, and who will soon be editing that into a release. Like somebody else said, ain’t no time to hate. But sometimes, it’s hard to know how you’re gonna feel before you start. And, hell, Phish gave me plenty of joy in the past, so I figured they were both at least worth checking in on in the present and treating them without any excuses or rationalizations.

Carol: Cactus said it best in the June 1994 “Letters” section of the Schvice. (That’s the Doniac Schvice — don’t ask twice how to pronounce it, because it’s the Phish newsletter from 1993-2000, or, as Cactus—once again—said it: “Doniac Schvice is the feeling you get when you’re fidgeting with your keys to get in your house, and the phone rings, and then stops ringing.”) Uhh, anyway, yeah… like Cactus said about the band’s evolution, back then in the mid-1.0:

PHISH!: I just hear your new song ‘Down With Disease.’ It sounds nothing like you – you are musicians, great ones at that, and I never thought you would ever sell out but when I heard that song I couldn’t help but wonder – you guys are so very special to me and to see you publicizing something that’s totally not like you makes me want to cry – is that really you playing ‘Down With Disease’ or is this some sick joke? Signed: Confused in Tennessee.

“Dear Confused,:

You say ‘Please don’t ever change’ but the definition of Phish has been change. So, you are asking us not to be Phish. Why do this to us? We think ‘Down With Disease’ is one of our best songs to date. We had so much fun in the studio. It’s great to sound like something different each year. Thanks for sharing your concerns. Why do people fear change? — Mike Gordon.”

Heck, it may take 10 years for some phans to get with Phish 3.0. By then, other phans may be rollin’ in Phish 5.5, and I may be totally over Phish (but shacking up with Page), and going to Biscuits shows again. Who knows?! But you can’t rush time. I like Joy now.

__________

After a lengthy absence, former steady contributor Carol Wade has returned to Jambands.com. Senior Editor Jesse Jarnow has been with us from the start.

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