Friday, November 28, 2008

Primer: Phish Part 10/Album of the Week- Round Room

Phish played their last show before going on a "hiatus" on October 7, 2000. In mid-August 2002, they announced they would be returning to the stage for a set of four New Year's shows; then, in late October of that same year, more good news: the band were loving their rehearsals so much they decided to release the results as an album. So it was that before they even played a reunion show together, they had a new album in stores. Round Room was the first real taste of the 'new' Phish and reviews were mixed. It was too long. It was sloppily produced. 'Mexican Cousin' sucked. 'Friday' sucked. They didn't sound the same, especially Trey's guitar. Then, more bad reviews: the New Year's Eve shows weren't terribly interesting and the subsequent winter tour was too short and uneven. Though the summer tour is highly regarded and bits and pieces of remainder of the era called 'Post-Hiatus Phish' are much loved, Phish in '03 and '04 just wasn't the same. In late May of 2004, mere weeks before the release of their next album and the start of their summer tour, the band announced that they were breaking up for good, with these dreaded words from Trey punching fans in the gut, fans who were having their favorite band taken away for the second time:

"For the sake of clarity, I should say that this is not like the hiatus, which was our last attempt to revitalize ourselves. We're done."

Yet here we are a little over four years after that and the band are getting back together to perform in March. What a world. Some buzz has developed over whether or not they'll record and release a new album before the shows, and so I find myself having the same excitement that fans did 6 years ago: potential new material from my favorite band.

I've always loved Round Room but I've never been able to articulate why. In writing up the short history of this album and post-hiatus Phish in the preceding paragraphs, I think I finally can explain why. see, Round Room is the most uncompromising studio album Phish ever made. I suspect the only reason Elektra released it was because they were desperate for something that wasn't the expensive-to-produce and probably-not-very-profitable Live Phish archival series. When I say uncompromising, what I mean is, it's the sound of a band playing only for themselves, to show off the songs to each other and to learn them, and then deciding to release that to the public. Though it's cleaned up and doesn't sound like a bootleg, it still has the sound of the first grasping attempts to get through a proper version of a song without the lifelessness that comes with running through the same song over and over. If you believe the liner notes--and I guess we have to because they have no reason to lie--Round Room was recorded in only four days.

Furthermore, there's no consideration given for radio play or winning new fans. I wondered why the band even bothered with 'The Connection' from Undermind; it's an OK song, but Phish are living in a dream if they think they're ever going to have a hit song or convert many millions more into fans from a hit single. Anyway, Round Room is a return to the very early days of studio Phish when the silly songs and long, winding instrumental passages and jams were left on. 'Mexican Cousin' and 'Friday' are reviled by fans--and I agree they sometimes destroy the flow of otherwise good shows--but if taken at face value, you warm up to them. 'Mexican Cousin' is a jokey drinking song and anyone who's seen Bittersweet Motel will understand its intent. 'Friday' is a tongue-in-cheek ballad; thank God they didn't remove the accidental laughing or we might've taken it seriously.

Speaking of accidents, Round Room is charming in its lack of a proper studio production. These literally are rehearsals edited into an album, the sort of thing a band might do and then take to a 'real' studio to make proper versions of. What we get here is Phish doing something they've never done before in the studio: flying without a net. Even The Siket Disc, an improvisational studio album, was heavily edited and finessed. While I'm sure they did a lot of takes for these songs, they weren't thinking of them in terms of 'takes.' All the foibles of their singing and playing are here. Some tracks even have outright bad technical problems with production, most likely due to bleed over or sloppy editing. You can hear an extra track of guitar on some songs (particularly 'Seven Below') and if you pay close attention to the chorus of 'Pebbles and Marbles' there's a weird bleed over that sounds like drums. Yet I'm willing to put up with this minor problems because Round Room is a great set of songs played very well. Phish would go on to play mind blowing versions of most of the major 'jam' tracks from this album but unlike the rest of their studio output, I think these versions stand up, too. Along with invigorating studio improvisation, Round Room has a nice set of ballads, too. In fact, they were recording better ballads without trying than they did when trying really hard. Maybe I'm just a sucker for slow songs and new stuff, but 'Anything But Me' and 'All Of These Dreams' are better than 'If I Could' and 'Waste' if only because they feel organic. They're ballads but they don't sound like old fashioned ballads written to fill the purpose.

And somehow that's the crux of why I think Round Room is so special and deviously underrated. All of the other Phish studio albums have a feeling of 'holding back' and pristine production, two things that don't play to the band's strengths. Some of their studio albums are good, a handful are great, but none of them sound and feel quite like this one, which is the most honest and--here's that word again--uncompromising Phish studio release. It's a here-it-is, as-it-happened, take-it-or-leave-it proposition and a risky one, indeed. While I can't recommend it to newcomers for that reason, it's paradoxically the most representative Phish studio album since it demonstrates an important truth about the band: the parts between the choruses and bridges are just as important as the choruses and the bridges themselves. Improvisation and composition aren't mutually exclusive; even when they aren't singing they're still talking to each other and to you. You just have to know how to listen. Round Room will teach you, if you let it.

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