Monday, October 13, 2008

Primer: Phish Part 2- Lawn Boy

Though Phish always had total freedom and control over their live shows, I've always gotten the impression that their record label--Elektra--exerted a lot of pressure on the band insofar as their studio releases were concerned. Band members have hinted that their relationship with the label 'never worked out' and it'll be interesting to see, now that they've reunited, how they distribute their new studio releases. Looking at the trajectory of their studio output, Junta and Lawn Boy belong to a different era where the band weren't signed; both releases have a free-wheeling sense of pacing and song length that is absent from almost all later releases save the anomalous Round Room.

At the same time, it could be argued that post-Lawn Boy releases had more and shorter songs because that's the direction the band was heading musically. Rather than writing and recording 11 minute epics with some room for improvisation, the band began to craft succinct songs with spots for improvisation added later or arriving naturally out of the ends of the songs. Of course, another reason that Phish studio albums had more songs with shorter timings is that it makes for better studio albums. Rather than just a collection of blueprints for live greatness to come, the band tried to create their equivalent of a Tommy, Dark Side of the Moon, Loaded, or American Beauty. But we'll get to that in another review.

Lawn Boy contains a varied collection of Phish classics, opening with perennial set/show closer 'The Squirming Coil' and closing with the maligned 'Bouncing Around The Room.' The latter demonstrates something interesting about Phish studio albums, because while I don't hate 'Bouncing Around The Room' itself, the frequency with which it was played on certain tours and its placement in setlists could be infuriating. The same goes for 'Prince Caspian', which works so magnificently well on Billy Breathes but was played way too often and in exactly the same way during tours. But I digress. Lawn Boy is a classic just like Junta because it contains a healthy amount of Phish's canon jamming epics: 'Reba', 'Split Open and Melt', 'Bathtub Gin', and 'Run Like An Antelope' all were birthed here. Compare this to later Phish albums which only contain one or two improvisational vehicles. But keep in mind that these four songs are not the boring noodle-fests that most people assume all jam bands sound like. These songs are intricate, unique, and fascinating pieces of music that don't really sound like anything else out there. It's hard to pin a genre on them because they borrow from so much yet still sound...Phish-y. Alongside these beasts are the tender-but-silly bluegrass of 'My Sweet One', the jaunty and playful 'The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony', and the lounge singer psychedelia of the title trck.

Though I said Lawn Boy is a classic like Junta, and die-hard fans must have it in their collections, it does suffer from the problem that plagues most Phish studio albums in that it sounds more like a collection of disparate songs than something which hangs together as a whole. The 'blindly loyal' Phish fan inside me loves the album, yet the 'critical voice' part of me knows that Phish has more cohesive and better sequenced studio work. So, then: fans gotta have this, but those getting into the band should stick with Junta.