Phish mellows out

by Lindsay Barnes | 1/9/03 6:00am

After taking a three-year hiatus from being America's biggest jam band, Phish have returned with their latest studio effort, "Round Room." After the time off, they seem to have mellowed out somewhat in comparison to earlier albums -- to both positive and negative effect.

On the upside, it sounds like the band paid extra attention to detail and thus the music generally has greater texture and nuance. The extra care is evident on the opening track "Pebbles and Marbles." It starts as a delicate, breezy song with each of the musicians playing softly and very carefully.

Then, slowly and almost undetectably, the song takes off and builds into a rousing jam, where all four members sound like they're taking solos. On paper that reads like chaos, but Phish's musical chemistry is still very much intact, and the members complement each other's playing so well it sounds like a finely tweaked blend rather than just a melange of sound.

The warm down-tempo tracks on the album are another highlight. "Anything But Me" is a low-key piece featuring some tender harmonies that make it sound almost like a lullaby. "All of These Dreams" is a sweet ballad featuring lilting solos from Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell.

But this mellowing trend works against Phish on some tracks when they give way to their tendency to stretch songs out into seven- and eight-minute jams. Whereas "Anything But Me" and "All of These Dreams" clock in concisely at less than five minutes, others go on for too long.

"Seven Below" starts off interestingly enough with a nice Latin beat from Jon Fishman and a staccato guitar riff from Anastasio, but it ends up meandering. And it's stuck between the sluggish "Friday" and the equally plodding "Mock Song." Consequently, the middle of the album drags.

But not all of the longer songs on the album will bore you. "Walls of the Cave" begins with a classical-sounding piano solo by McConnell and is soon joined by Fishman's quick Afro-Latin beat. Things get quiet as Anastasio sings accompanied by some soft harmonies, and the song ends -- only to have Fishman come crashing in like a wrecking ball, sounding like he's channeled the wild spirit of Keith Moon. His bandmates follow suit and the song becomes a rollicking jam. It's this kind of dynamic movement within the song that "Seven Days" is missing.

Fortunately, there's still some of that old Phish quirkiness on "Round Room." "Mexican Cousin" is an amusing ode to either a drink or a woman named Tequila, showcasing a Clapton-esque guitar solo from Anastasio. The title track is a whimsical up-tempo song with the trademark bounce that can be found on such early classics like "You Enjoy Myself."

And on "46 Days," Pishprove that they still know how to get down. It's got a funky reggae-influenced groove, bluesy guitar work and a double-barreled assault of piano and Hammond organ -- and you can dance to it. When all four members shout out the refrain of "46 days and the coal ran out," it sounds like that they're old friends having fun playing together again.

While this isn't the band's strongest effort, it's mostly an enjoyable listen. Even 20 years after they formed across the river in Vermont and three years since they last played together, Phish prove that their unique spirit is still alive and well.