It’s an unfortunate fact that Phish studio albums are often met with varying degrees of indifference. Obviously, people who don’t like the band couldn’t care less. And the mega-fans will generally shrug and tell you that the live albums and—more importantly—the in-concert experience is how you can best experience the music of Vermont’s famous sons.
Having reclaimed some of their studio mojo on 2014's critically lauded Fuego, jam institution Phish were more than willing to take another chance with studio legend Bob Ezrin at the helm. Instead of the five-year gaps that preceded their last two studio LPs, Big Boat arrives a mere two years after Fuego and rides a similar sonic wave with its focus on streamlined songwriting and more concise lyrics. Like many Phish productions, a number of these songs were honed on-stage during tours in 2015 and early 2016, and the easy buoyancy of tracks like "Blaze On" and the funky horn-laden "No Men in No Man's Land" feel like they could have been in the group's canon for years.
Earlier this summer, Netflix introduced American audiences to the Norwegian television phenomenon of Slow TV, which is essentially a realtime broadcast of activities that vary from cross-country journeys to knitting to burning firewood. Defiant of characters, plot, or really anything that would make a television show interesting in a traditional sense, Slow TV decides instead to simply place a camera down and observe real life as it passes by within a 7-to-11-hour timeframe. The trend certainly has not caught on with mainstream American audiences, but for those curious about what has captured an entire culture’s fascination, it is certainly worth a try.
There are (at least) two distinct kinds of Phish fans: fans who pay attention to their studio albums, and those who don't. Place me firmly in the latter camp.While the venerable Vermont four-piece have rarely played a concert in their 30-plus years on the road that, in my estimation, wasn't worth your time and concentration, their 13 studio albums over the same period have generally ranged from inessential to pointless. (If we're fighting about this, I'll make room for 1993's Rift and 1994's Hoist, both of which mostly work.)But this is no backhanded compliment; Phish are perhaps the single most consistently excellent and worthy live act of my lifetime.
The best of Phish’s music aims for transcendence. It’s at the heart of any jam band, or really, any kind of improvisatory outfit: an attempt to find language beyond language, to go somewhere you could not go alone. It’s why the length of any given Phish song in concert might stretch deep into the double-digits, and why their loyal legion of fans feel an instinctual desire to see as many of their shows as possible.
I should disclose, first thing, hand-on-Bible-style, that I have a soft spot for Phish. There was a long time when, entranced by the notorious joke band's genre-blending, free-form jamming, I was really into Phish. Years later, I've come to wear this fact not as a blemish but as a badge of pride. In our current culture of hyper-inclusive, omnivorous taste formation, where we're expected to enjoy lame top-40 bands like Steely Dan and the Bee Gees, being a Phish-head is still a no-no.