Throughout the extraordinarily successful first act of its career, the fact that Vermont's most acclaimed jam band recorded 10 studio albums was more or less irrelevant: As the most dedicated Phishead will tell you with a wide grin and heavy-lidded eyes, "It was all about the live adventure, man!" Indeed, Billboard reports that while the group's bestselling disc ("Hoist," 1994) moved only 663,000 units, and its last ("Undermind," 2004) racked up a mere 139,000 sold, from the period between 1989 and its split five years ago, the band peddled more than 5.8 million concert tickets to some 475 shows. That's a whole heck of a lot of T-shirts that will forever reek of patchouli and pot smoke.
Despite the accomplishment of having become the post-Jerry Grateful Dead for a new generation of grungy road trippers and tailgating partiers, guitarist and bandleader Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell, drummer Jon Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon always seemed peeved that rock radio and MTV pretty much ignored them, and so they kept going back to the studio, often with mildly pleasant if far from earth-shaking results. Though I'm by far in the minority, I actually preferred recorded Phish to live Phish--I just can't abide by the unfocused and never-ending onstage jams, dudes--especially in the early days circa "Junta" (1989) and "Lawnboy" (1990), when there still was a lot more Genesis-style progressive rock in the mix instead of jazz-fusion/hippie-twirling wank and head-scratching stylistic detours into, say, barbershop quartet--the sort of thing that's an unforgivably bad idea no matter how stoned you are.
Well, the prog is back with a vengeance, at least on the 13-minute, 30-second "Time Turns Elastic," the most remarkable track from the reunited group's new disc, "Joy." Producer Steve Lillywhite--who previously helmed "Billy Breathes" in 1996, though he'll forever be best known for having some role in eight of U2's biggest albums--has said that the 15 different sections of the pseudo-orchestral suite took 278 takes to nail. Yet for all of that, it's a catchy little ditty, meandering along in a cheerfully dizzying way like a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
Unfortunately, nothing else on "Joy" is nearly as ambitious musically--and no, sorry, I do not count McConnell's pseudo-lounge tune, Gordon's heavy-handed stab at reggae or any of the jazz excursions. Thematically, though Anastasio told Rolling Stone that many of the lyrics deal with his struggle with drugs, his efforts to return to the land of the living after his 2006 arrest for possession and the recent death from cancer of his sister, the insights can best be described as sub-fortune cookie--and sometimes they're not even that good.
"Got a blank space where my mind should be," is the line that jumps out of "Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan," while "Ocelot"... well, it just has to be heard to be believed: "Ocelot, ocelot, where are you now?... You prance with the beasts that parade every night/And silently slouch through the forest by light."
Nevertheless, there's something noble in a band that really has nothing left to prove still chasing after the one goal that eludes it. Concert ticket sales alone are guaranteed to maintain spectacular trust funds for all the Phish men's spawn in perpetuity, and the group easily could have stuck with live recordings for as long as Act Two lasts, especially since it's now back where it was at the start of its career, funding its own recordings and releasing them independently. (JEMP is Phish's own label.) And rock radio and MTV barely even exist anymore, so who are they trying to impress now?
In any event, cudos to the boys for trying and, "Time Turns Elastic" aside, failing. One of these days, they may yet make an album as good as "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway."