Someone in a recent issue of Surrender to the Flow was recalling his favorite version of “You Enjoy Myself” and said that he never laughed out loud to music before hearing that second track on 1988’s Junta. It occurred to me then that I had never listened to Junta, never mind a studio version of “YEM.” I hadn’t really listened to any studio Phish. ‘Why would I,’ I thought, ‘when live Phish is so much better?’ ‘But how would you know?’ said a little voice. So I went and listened to the only studio recordings I had on my iPod at the time- “Light,” and two tracks off an old Valentine’s Day mix, “Waste” and “If I Could,” the latter which had been played maybe once. After listening through these selections, I decided to indulge in some studio Phish, even if I wasn’t “supposed” to like it.
Naysayers, I hear your concerns loud and clear. Studio versions of our favorite songs can be very weird and discomforting. Take “Chalk Dust Torture,” where they decided to lower the tone on Trey’s vocals, making the whole vibe of the song kind of creepy. The production effects on songs can often times be questionable, and the band has admitted to putting less effort into their studio sessions than their live shows. But for many studio versions, we get an elaborated, perfected, and fantastic example of Phish songs. We get horns and back-up vocals, choirs even! We’re treated to amazing featured artists, harmonies you can’t possibly hear at shows, and parts of songs completely forgotten. Let me just ask you this: how do you know how good the jam is if you don’t know where it’s coming from? Most of the studio versions provide a jumping board for these songs to take off from, to grow and develop as they noodle through the sound-space continuum that is Phish.
Give that classic first album a thought. Some of Phish’s most highly anticipated songs come from that project: “Fee,” “YEM,” “Foam,” “Dinner and a Movie,” “David Bowie,” and “Fluffhead,” to name a few. And the writer from some issues ago is absolutely right; each funky turn in YEM can make you laugh out loud. The first four tracks of Lawn Boy, which came out in 1990, pack a hard punch with a “Squirming Coil> Reba> My Sweet One> Split Open and Melt” opener. “Reba” sounds clear, the words flow out clutter-free and precise, and it’s slowed down a bit so you can really appreciate the story in the music. “Split” becomes this kind of demonic, weirdly powerful, twisted little journey that I usually don’t experience during a live hearing. The horns add a level of unknowing to the coarse, deep vocals (which work here as opposed to “CDT”), and the sultry chorus singers remind you of some burlesque carnival fun house.
A Picture of Nectar will always be one of my favorite albums because each song brings something to the table I haven’t heard in a live version. The boys slipped “Manteca” in there, thinking no one would notice (ha!). This 1992 release gifted us with “Llama,” “Stash,” “Guelah Papayrus,” “Glide,” and “Tweezer,” not to mention the other gems. It’s enough to say that this album brought us classics, but it also revisited the character side of Phish. “Eliza,” “Cavern,” and “The Mango Song” are all amazingly driven by character and plot, and bring us back to the days of TMWSIY. 1993’s Rift includes rarities like “Lengthwise,” “The Wedge,” and “Weigh,” and without listening to the album, you may never hear these songs.
Hoist is the album that features the most incredible talent the boys bring in the studio. Horns and collaboration are some of my favorite Phish specialties and this album has both. Julius featured the soulful Rickey Grundy Chorale (with Rose Stone & Jean McClain) and the Tower of Power Horns. The spacey-watery-wonderworld of “Down with Disease” is something not easily replicable, while the familiar, but new “Axilla II” is another album treasure, with the quirkiest ending I’ve known Phish to produce. We already know that “If I Could,” featuring Allison Kraus, is the studio version that got me going studio-ways in the first place, and “Scent of a Mule” is crisp, clean, and delightfully bouncy, something that doesn’t always translate to the stage.
In my opinion, the albums that came after this are less to write home about. 1996’s Billy Breathes and 1998’s The Story of the Ghost did bring in some more classics that we’ve fallen in love with, and it’s definitely worth it to give those versions a listen. Farmhouse was pretty much a flop (if you ask any phan, though the mainstream media seemed to like it). Round Room and Undermind were, well… somewhat undermined and have kind of been swept under the rug. Give them both a chance and see if the lighter, more poetic tunes don’t show you a different side of Phish. As far as Joy/Party Time, I would buy them both. It’s their first album back (again) and now that most of the tracks are pretty integrated into rotation, it will be interesting to see how they grow.
Just as the writer of a past STTF encouraged me, I hope this article opens your mind up some of the perfected powers our boys can stir up. It’s just as amazing what they can do on stage as what they can do in a studio.