Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Primer: Phish Part 1- Junta

Assuming you happened across them in the late 80s or early 90s, you'd be hard pressed to find a stranger band than Phish. Remember that this was before the band got tagged as 'the next Grateful Dead', which happened around 1994 when Jerry Garcia died. No, during the time frame I'm talking about, Phish were this odd entity that put out music that was some strange chemical compound made up of Frank Zappa's humor and chops, progressive rock complexity and epic songs, 60s/70s pop/classic rock, and heavy dashes of bluegrass, funk, blues, folk, jazz, and Latin music. They never fit in with any of the trends throughout the 80s, 90s, or 00s, though they are often filed in with the 'jam band' scene which they largely helped birth and transcended at the same time. Listening back to Junta now, it's funny to think that the sort of band who married simplistic, childish, jokey lyrics with complicated musical arrangements could become so popular. For their first recording, Junta is surprisingly well formed.

Except that it wasn't their first recording. Though Junta is ostensibly their debut, the band had spent the first few years of their existence messing around with bedroom recordings and experimental music (the infamous White Tape) and putting together a concept album/musical for guitarist Trey Anastasio's senior college thesis (the even-more-infamous Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, a.k.a. Gamehendge). Both of these releases never saw wide release; the Gamehendge saga itself only exists in bootleg form, while The White Tape received official release only in the late 90s. At any rate, as the band recorded Junta they had been playing together for almost five years and had, technically, produced two albums of material. For years people have been listening to this album and wondering how a band could sound so sure and complete on its debut. Most of the songs on this release became staples of Phish's live material for years and years, after all. Well, as it turns out, it wasn't their first studio experience and they were a fairly seasoned live band to boot.

But let's talk about the music, shall we?? Junta is the logical starting place for anyone first discovering the band since it contains, more or less, everything that people love about Phish. It includes a healthy helping of their compositional heavy hitters such as 'You Enjoy Myself', 'David Bowie', 'Fluffhead', and 'The Divided Sky.' It has short, fun songs like 'Fee', 'Dinner And A Movie', and 'Contact.' It contains a long-form studio jam, 'Union Federal', which is kind of like a preview of the sort of epic improvisation the band would go on to produce during live concerts from roughly '93 onwards. And finally, Junta has two live tracks which demonstrate the band's humor and knowledge of music, referencing Jimmy Buffet and a line from a U2 concert film all the while clowning around with insidery concert jokes.

On a side note, Phish's studio output is an oddly fascinating document of the band. Like most hardcore fans, I've gotten used to the way these songs sound on live recordings, so at first the songs seem kind of sterile and flat, with less energy and unarguably more concise lengths than live versions. But now, as I'm going through all their studio output again, I feel as though I appreciate the perfection and "basic"-ness of them. While fans could easily point to live versions of each of these songs that are better (for any number of reasons: quotes of other songs, better solos, better improvisation, segues into or out of other songs, etc.) the studio versions of live favorites like 'You Enjoy Myself' and 'Tweezer' are strangely charming. It's fun to go from these relatively reserved, polished offerings to the madness and "falling-down-a-mountain-out-of-control-but-I-love-it" feel of live shows.

Junta is often considered by fans to be the band's best studio album. I agree to the extent that I think it's the best place to start for newcomers in order to begin familiarizing themselves with Phish's music. Personally I lean toward Billy Breathes or Farmhouse as the band's best studio album, because those function equally well for fans as they do for non-fans, being attempts to produce a unified piece of music instead of just a selection of Phish songs pared down for the studio. But that's an argument for another time, so I digress. Junta is a must buy for fans and the best place for outsiders to start.

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