There's always been a disconnect between studio releases and live work for jam bands. On one hand, your studio albums should try to appeal to as large an audience as possible to bring in new fans, but, on the other hand, if you dilute your sound down too much you risk losing your core fanbase and washing away everything that makes you so unique. Studio albums by nature can't replicate sprawling two hour plus live shows, and since that's the primary artistic canvas that jam bands paint on, studio releases come off as atrophied and reserved versions of the band. When a band does put real effort into a honest-to-goodness, stand-on-its-own-merits studio album--as Phish did with Billy Breathes and the Grateful Dead did with American Beauty and Workingman's Dead--they can indeed produce some great work...but it doesn't have much to do with their live shows. I feel sorry for those who bought Billy Breathes based on the glowing reviews and wandered into a Phish show during '96 or '97. Well, maybe I'm more jealous than sorry...
In the end, the bulk of Phish's studio output ended up feeling like blueprints for what they could do live. Though none of these albums are bad, they're still held back by the format of a single hour-ish CD of music. Even at their poppiest and most produced, Phish are still too weird, prog rock-y, and psychedelic for most people, so one wonders why they even bothered trying to reach the mainstream. However, A Picture of Nectar does an admirable job of turning out a polished set of songs while simultaneously giving a good sample platter of the band. At 16 songs it covers more ground than even the double disc Junta, and is a studio version of a song-y first set. Sorry, I lapsed into jam band parlance there for a second. What I meant to say was, it's got a lot of songs but little extended improvisation.
The real strength of A Picture of Nectar is its startling diversity. One of the most trumpeted aspects of Phish is their variety of music, and nowhere is that best evidenced studio-wise than on this release. Though the albums begins with the relatively straightforward rock of 'Llama' and the ballady instrumental 'Eliza', the album quickly veers off the road with bluegrass ('Poor Heart'), complicated jazz-rock ('Stash'), crunchy experimental funk-rock ('Tweezer'), tangy Latin ('The Landlady'), spoken word ('Catapult'), and sprightly ragtime ('Magilla'). Though this genre hopping may seem gimmicky on paper, the band is able to pull it off with competence and personality.
There are two problems with the album from a non-fan standpoint, however. For starters, I've never liked the sound of the album. Something about the production strikes me as very sterile and digital-in-a-bad-way sounding. Maybe I'm too used to how these songs sound on live recordings, but I don't think so. The production on earlier albums didn't bother me; starting with A Picture of Nectar and ending with Billy Breathes, which has a delicate/warm atmosphere, the 'sound' of Phish albums became too....clean. As for my other problem, well, this is an admirably diverse set of songs that showcases the band's chops and personality, but it's still not a great album on its own merits. As a fan of the band that doesn't even occur to me because I like everything they do for the most part, but looking at A Picture of Nectar through a critical lens, it's a disjointed album that doesn't hang together as a whole and just doesn't flow all that well. That's all nitpicking, though. Fans should own this album no matter what, and those looking to get into this band...well, you should still start with Junta, but A Picture of Nectar isn't a bad second or third step.
Looking back, A Picture of Nectar would set the tone for most of Phish's studio albums. As it was their major label debut, one wonders if that was part of the equation. Whatever the case, most future releases would have around a dozen songs, concise song lengths, and a detached, sterile production. You get so used to the way these songs are played and the way they sound in live recordings that these studio versions are like odd artifacts. Certainly I like A Picture of Nectar, and it comes the closest to replicating the variety of musical ground covered during live shows, but I mostly listen to it as a curiosity rather than an excellent 'album' with its own merits.