Review: Fuego

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Depending on your level of intensity as a Phish fan, your take on the band’s 2013 Halloween performance probably fell in one of two camps. The decision to unveil twelve brand new songs – rather than the traditional approach of covering an album from one of their musical influences – was either an inspiring risk in the band’s 30th year, or it was a cringeworthy gimmick that further proved how out-of-touch Phish was from the endless desires of their fanbase.

The divisive nature of conversation within the Phish community is such that grey is rarely a viable color option. Whether or not this is due to its fervent dedication, or its preference for polemics over metered discussions is still up for debate.

(For the sake of clarity and openness, I personally thought Wingsuit was one of the defining moments of 2013. Both for the balls it displayed by the band, and the shift it initiated towards the future of Phish, I unabashedly viewed it as an overwhelming success.)

Regardless the hyper-dichotomy the initial presentation of (what was dubbed at the time) Wingsuit caused within the Phish community, there was one universal takeaway from it. In both presentation and delivery, it’s clear Phish sought to craft an album that captured the energy, equitable playing, and open-ended musical possibilities that have made their live shows so incomparable within the realm of modern rock. That this particular goal is so critical for a band entering their third decade – a band that has both proven their merit within the live realm of the rock universe, while accomplishing nearly every artistic goal they’ve ever strived towards – says everything you need to know about the quality of their studio album’s to date.

To be blunt, Phish’s studio recordings are to their live shows what a burger in SE Asia is to Kuma’s. A tepid imitation that only leaves you craving the real thing that much more.

For as divisive as the initial response t0 Wingsuit was in the Fall of 2013, the leak, and subsequent response to Fuego, has been met with a far more measured shrug and understated grin. New Phish music has arrived, and this is a good thing. Now, much of the community directs their attention to the impending tour where we’ll see just how these ten new songs fit in the ever-expanding Phish catalogue.

Overwhelmingly it seems the Phish community is genuinely pleased with Fuego. The record pops with energy and is sonically weightier than many of the band’s previous efforts. Yet, there’s still a consistent hesitation for many to disarmingly love the record. The reason for this is simple: the task for the band to transfer what makes them special in the live setting into a studio is complicated. It raises questions over what is specifically necessary for Phish to thrive as a band.

Does there need to be an audience present?

Do they need the freedom to play without taking a cut?

How much of an impact does a confined setlist and a time constraint have on their overall level of creativity?

The answers are not simple, and as anyone who’s listened to Fuego can attest, neither are the results.

The record opens with its title-track, a brawny, nine-minute song that has “Set II Opening Jam” written all over it. Recorded live during the 10/30 soundcheck at Boardwalk Hall, “Fuego” is at once the closest representation of live Phish on a studio album, and an absolutely torrid opening statement. Not to mention a veritable showcase for the ongoing resurrection of one Jon Fishman. Throughout, the band sounds confident and adroit. The production is such that the song is left to speak for itself; the levels are simply adjusted here to accentuate the power of each musician’s playing. There’s a franticness to the playing. Listening, it’s as if one can simultaneously latch onto the nerves accompanying the band in the hours before the Halloween show, and, now, as both fans and band anxiously await just how “Fuego” will expand this summer.

The title of the record indicates heat, obviously. By most interpretations, Fuego – in both its phrasing and in the music produced – is a confident assertion from the band as to where they stand in 2014. Whereas 2009 was defined by a communal joy at the simple presence of Phish again, in 2014, nothing short of straight-fire from the band will cut it. By these standards, the album’s opening nine-minutes are as invigorating as they are shocking.

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From there we weave in-and-out of a number of set fillers as the group’s collective songwriting – as well as the individual creations of each member – are put on display. One must point out the overall quality of the songs that make-up the meat of Fuego. Whereas in past Phish records, the ballads and contemplative numbers have tended to be their most disappointing (save for “Fast Enough For You,” “Lifeboy,” and “Thunderhead”) here, these songs shine as individual numbers. Still, there are flaws throughout. Notably, the fact that any concept of flow is essentially tossed to the wayside, and unquestionably each of these songs live and die – in large part – on the production work from Bob Ezrin.

“Devotion To A Dream,” – something of a wizened “Backwards Down The Number Line” – benefits greatly from both the work of Ezrin and a brilliant concluding solo from Trey that hints at his Eat A Peach inspired lead work in the 10/29/2013 “Down With Disease.” Conversely, “The Line” is barely tempered with and is one of the finest overall tracks of the record.

Both “Winterqueen” and “Sing Monica” teeter between overtly cheesy pop and sheer studio dominance. While I’ve never understood Trey’s post-2.0 infatuation with writing as if he were trying to compose Game Of Thrones: The Musical, the spaciousness that hangs within the verses, and the horns that build halfway through, add a completely different dimension to one of the (admittedly) weaker Halloween debuts. Love it or hate it, it’s clear “Sing Monica” is here to stay. If the version from Fuego is any hint though, the reworked solo is going rock live, and could find the most overtly-pop song the band’s written since “The Connection” serving as a reliable Set I closer.

“Halfway To The Moon” – one of the most emotive and mysterious songs the band has debuted in 3.0 – is both sharp and disappointing all at once. Musically, the studio slims it down while equally smoothing out its edges, giving it an even sultrier groove than has been apparent in many live versions. However, the over-production of Page’s vocals eliminates any of the organic quality that has always been key to the song. That it’s always sounded like a haunting mix between Neil Young, The National and Cass McCombs should have been accentuated. Instead, Ezrin drains Page’s voice of any human quality, thus cutting out the personal struggle that is at the core of the song.

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Last week I wrote in depth about both “555” and “Waiting All Night.” While my feelings towards the two as individual songs has yet to change – I fear the production on “555” has swerved into gimmicky terrain, yet am completely blown away by everything about “Waiting All Night” – I find that their placement on the record alters my thoughts towards them ever-so-slightly.

Whereas “555” feels like a proper shift towards the album’s second half following “Sing Monica,” “Waiting All Night” is as awkwardly placed here as it was in it’s two live versions to date. The song is perfectly set up to be an ideal landing spot for a Set II jam, and one can only hope the jarring entrance that’s accompanied it in its infancy doesn’t follow it into 2014.

What’s more is the placement of “Wombat” and “Wingsuit” back-to-back, in the set-up and closing role, only increases the lack of flow that permeates throughout the record. Following the blissful nature of “Waiting All Night,” one has to wonder why we’re dropped into the awkward giddiness of “Wombat” only to then be released in the ethereal and stunning “Wingsuit.”

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A necessary digression:

One of the defining aspects that makes the most memorable Phish shows so transcendent – and so re-listenable – is the presence of flow. Be it due to song selection, or fluid jamming, or an advanced attentiveness to tonal structure and key shifting/uniting within the setlist, Phish’s insistence upon connecting all the separate pieces of their catalogue into linear narratives is something that separates them from most other live acts. One only has to scan the setlists from 2013 to see how setlist structure and flow helped craft some of the best shows of the year, including 07/05/2013, 07/27/2013, 07/30/2013, and 12/29/2013, among others. That so little effort was made to connect the ten pieces of Fuego into something that feels tangible and unified, is one of its biggest disappointments.

The standard of great albums (from Highway 61 Revisited to Dark Side Of The Moon to Sound Of Silver to High Violet to Lost In The Dream) begins and ends with its narrative continuity. Dedicated listeners want to be able to press play and let a record unveil itself to them organically. Repeated listens and interlocking themes, that can only emerge from this kind of listening, tend to materialize from records that flow effortlessly from one song to the next. Most critically, Fuego feels like a collection of songs rather than a linear story.

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A song that was defined by on-stage dancing, an infectious funk-strut, and some of the goofiest, and self-referential jokes that Phish has ever composed, it’s shocking how little fun the band sounds like their having throughout the recorded version of “Wombat.” The vocals are sung without any sense of humor, and the result is an awkward, borderline embarrassing, delivery of a song that clearly requires an all-in mentality. Musically it’s taught and danceable, and the loops that cater the song’s post-explosion will be received with ecstatic praise should they accompany the it this summer.

Whereas Halloween 2013 opened with the blissful airiness of “Wingusit,” Fuego closes with it, and it’s clear this role is far more appropriate for it long-term. (As a side note, for all the issue I have with the overall flow of Fuego, it’s undeniable how perfectly the band nailed their opening/closing selections.)

“Wingsuit” is unquestionably one of the records supreme highlights. The surreal nature and ambient quality that made it one of the immediate keepers on Halloween is ever-present here. And the final break and subsequent solo from Trey is so clearly lifted from David Gilmour it feels like the proper musical nod in its delivery. A song that feels simultaneously like a rebirth and a conclusion, the symbolic nature of it opening 10/31 II and closing Fuego are not lost on this listener. In the same sense, the idea of the song expanding outwards as a Set II Opening Jam, while also working as a landing pad for an extended “Down With Disease” is equally imaginable.

That we have so many structural options with the majority of these songs is a testament to the band’s diverse songwriting capabilities so deep in their career.

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For a band that has always struggled to capture the magic of their live performances within the confines of the studio, Fuego is as close a representation of the true nature of Phish as has ever been put to tape. In it’s best moments – “Fuego,” the powerful solos in “The Line,” “Devotion To A Dream,” “Halfway To The Moon,” and “Sing Monica,” and the ambient bliss of “Waiting All Night” and “Wingsuit” – Fuego feels like a major accomplishment for Phish. And it is.

Never before have they truly come close to honing in on the unbridled energy, and atmospheric spaciousness that drives so many of their fans to travel to see them repeatedly.

And yet, at the same time, what Fuego proves as well is that there’s simply no way Phish can (or will) ever truly recreate the magic that is so ever-present at their shows within the confines of the studio. The issues with flow, the overproduction of certain songs, and the abject tepidness of “Wombat” leave a bad taste in your mouth long after the record finishes. This is not to say the record is a failure in any way. No matter what criticisms you lay on it, it’s unquestionably the band’s strongest record since either Billy Breathes or The Story Of The Ghost.

In the end, it seems clear that even after the applaudable efforts from Phish to craft a studio record that reverberates with the power and energy of their live shows, it may be something of an unattainable goal. So much of what makes Phish’s live shows so unique is polar opposite to what makes a classic album so lasting.

Whereas Phish shows capitalize on the unknown, albums are carefully crafted artifacts. Spontaneity plays such a huge role in every Phish jam, while each moment of transcendence on an album has been labored over for weeks, and sometimes months. The two mediums are neither compatible, nor do they cater to every artist. While Phish ultimately comes up short on Fuego in terms of recreating their live show within the confines of an album, the sheer fact that they took the risk some three decades into their career is reason enough to believe in this band going forward.

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