Monday, November 10, 2008

Primer: Phish Part 5- Hoist

There isn't a better disconnect between where Phish was as a band and where their label wanted them to be at than the video for 'Down With Disease.' It's easy for me to forget that the semi-professional and 'adult' looking Phish of the past decade or so was once the weird/nerdy/playful Phish of the 80s and early-to-mid 90s. Watching the video--with its glimpses of Phish in concert bouncing on trampolines as well as hints of the infamous vacuum cleaner--it becomes abundantly clear that, while the song playing is polished and intended for radio play, the band was not. But it was never Phish's destiny to win over an audience with a music video and a charting hit single. In all actuality it was never their intention.

With that in mind, I wonder if Phish really thought Hoist was a good album or if they did it for the record company's sake. On one hand, Hoist makes the crucial step of getting the runtime down to that magic, manageable 45 minutes that I spoke of in my review of Rift. On the other hand, the production of the album is still cold and lifeless while the band's sound is polished to a waxy sheen, losing all the appeal of Phish in the process. The real triumphs of Hoist aren't the catchier, more upbeat tracks like 'Down With Disease' and 'Axilla [Part II]' but the ballads 'Lifeboy' and 'If I Could.' These point the way to the forthcoming Billy Breathes, which proved the band could make a great studio album without having to sacrifice anything. From a Phish historian's perspective, 'Wolfman's Brother' is the diamond in the rough of the album, since it was only played a few times from '94 to '96 before being revisited and reborn during the early '97 performance captured on the live album Slip, Stitch and Pass in a funkier jamming form.

Given the two year stretch between Hoist and Billy Breathes, I'll go into greater detail the context for the creation of the latter album in my review for it. But at the time of Hoist Phish was still a mid-level jam band steadily growing in popularity. '93 and '94 were the first years that Phish began to earn their marks as improvisers, playing to their own little cult audience and not caring what the mainstream thought. In said mainstream, the fad of grunge rock was fading and its related offspring, alternative rock, was rising up. All the while, hip hop/rap was increasing in popularity by leaps and bounds. So, again, I have to wonder what the band and the record label were thinking releasing this album. Even with a studio polish, Phish was still too weird for the mainstream and too different from the 'alternative' world. And while their fans dutifully bought Hoist I can't imagine many thought it was the best the band was capable of if they were left to their own devices. I mean, where was their version of American Beauty, The White Album, Hot Rats, or Tommy? Hell, Junta and Lawn Boy were pretty awesome, right??

The truth of the matter is that Phish weren't capable of the songcraft necessary to carry a tight, concise, and creative studio album quite yet, and their record company was ill-advisedly trying to whitewash what made the band great: complicated, winding songs and extended soloing/improvisation. I feel like a broken record because I've been saying this for at least two reviews now, but while I like the songs of Hoist it doesn't work as an album. One need only listen to the 'hidden track' after 'Demand' to see where the band's priorities were at this point in time. This first glimpse of live Phish--the jam portion of a version of 'Split Open and Melt' from '93--is superior to anything else on the album. With my disappointments in Phish's first three major label studio albums, one might ask what, exactly, I would've done. Hindsight is 20/20 but still. If the record label understood anything about the band they would've known that they were best live and free to do what they wanted. The songs of A Picture of Nectar, Rift, and Hoist just weren't meant to be played and recorded in the manner they were. Lawn Boy is a successful album because it didn't try to clip 'Reba' and 'Run Like An Antelope' down to size so they could fit more songs on the album. You could cut four or five songs from the three aforementioned albums to allow for more improvisational room because, let's be honest, Phish wasn't focused on songwriting at that point in their career. During '95 and '96 they became serious about writing great songs for a studio album, songs that didn't need a jam afterwards or complicated structures to work. Really, what I think they should have done with the pre-Billy Breathes albums was to have less songs, have longer songs, and still stick to a 45-50 minute runtime.

Though I've been critical, I don't dislike Hoist. It's a step in the right direction, paring down to 45 minutes from the incredibly long and unfocused Rift. But at the same time, the band had a ways to go to produce something that sounds and functions like a true studio album instead of a collection of songs with all the blood and vigor of live performances taken out. Fans should pick this up, while those interested in the band should stick with Lawn Boy or Junta. Everybody else, Billy Breathes is the way to go, and I'll get to that next.

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