Jump to content

RR Chicago Tribune review


Recommended Posts

By Greg Kot

Tribune rock critic

December 11, 2002

Phish's "Round Room," out this week, is the sound of four musicians making their reacquaintance after a two-year hiatus. It is a series of lukewarm handshakes and tentative greetings masquerading as a studio album. It is by turns perverse, fascinating, indulgent and confounding. It is the type of album rarely heard anymore in mainstream rock -- four musicians working off the rust while the tape player rolls. Fans will likely greet its arrival with enthusiasm; everyone else will be left wondering how these guys got away with releasing unfinished demos with a major label's blessing.

Here's how:

The members of Phish -- guitarist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, pianist Page McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman -- took an extended vacation at the height of their popularity in the fall of 2000, citing creative burnout. Without extensive commercial radio support and multiplatinum album sales, Phish had become one of the most formidable touring bands in rock history, accruing more than $55 million in revenue in 1999-2000 despite some of the lowest ticket prices on the arena circuit.

After working on a variety of solo projects, the reunion of Anastasio, Gordon, McConnell and Fishman in their practice space outside Burlington, Vt., last September was initially viewed as a rehearsal to develop new material for a tour that opens New Year's Eve at Madison Square Garden in New York and arrives Feb. 20, 2003 at the Allstate Arena. The band worked out loose arrangements for 20 songs in four days and recorded them.

The idea was to debut the songs in concert, but then the band and its Elektra label decided to rush-release a dozen of the new songs rather than let Internet traders get a crack at them first. In years past, Phish likely would have relegated such rehearsal material to fans-only distribution through its www.phish.com Web site because it preferred to work out new songs over months of touring. But at a time when the record industry is bereft of bona fide superstar rock bands and claims its sales are being cut by music-file swappers on the Net, "Round Room" is getting a full-on, pre-Christmas buying season promotional push.

It may be the highest profile Phish release yet, but it's also the least representative of the band's abilities. "Round Room" sounds like the work of four musicians emerging from hibernation, clearing their throats and noodling for more than two minutes at the outset before Anastasio begins singing what is, formally, the album's most accomplished song, "Pebbles and Marbles." If there's a theme to the album, it's one of transition and the impermanence of relationships: "Pebbles and marbles like words from a friend/Make us hold tight but we are lost in the end."

Phish also sounds lost -- but blissfully so -- on much of this album. The song is captured at an embryonic stage, with some bum notes audible in its opening seconds, but its somber, introspective tone soon spirals into an extended, improvised section in which Anastasio's sheets-of-sound guitar squall rises and recedes, allowing McConnell's piano and Gordon's bass -- unusually prominent in the mix-- to undulate into the foreground.

The jams have a kind of grinning formlessness that must have appealed to the musicians as they found themselves face to face with one another for the first time in two years. But in contrast to the concise songcraft of the band's most recent studio releases, notably "Farmhouse" (2000), and the intricate, multipart compositions of Phish's earlier albums, many of the tracks on "Roundhouse" sound tentative in trying to split the difference between the two approaches. The problem is that it boasts neither the tunefulness of the latter-day song-oriented approach or the busy-to-bursting art-rock ambition of the earlier arrangements. In its place is a relaxed give-and-take, which rises above the genial only in the Stones blues-rock of "46 Days" and the anthemic second half of "Walls of the Cave."

At a time when most major-label albums are so studied, tweaked and over-produced they enter a realm of fantasy that enables even a Jennifer Lopez to pursue a singing "career," Phish stands as a shaggy-haired antidote. But it doesn't mean they aren't sometimes just as guilty of indulging themselves. On "Round Room," Phish takes advantage of that license to experiment like never before, but all they've proven is that musical risk doesn't always ensure musical greatness.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Create New...