Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Phish and Prog Rock

A few nights ago I saw Phish. First time in 9 years since seeing them with Tex at the Allstate Arena and (to give some perspective on my Phish nerd-dom) my 23rd (!) Phish show. Not sure if any of you will ever take me seriously after that, but there you have it. Anyway, as I mentioned I’ve been listening to an awful lot of these guys in anticipation and have discovered an interesting new development in my appreciation for this band.

The way I see it, Phish’s songs break down into 3 basic groups: more traditional “pop” songs (think Farmhouse or Cavern); songs with minimal structure that are just excuses to jam away (Tweezer, David Bowie); and songs that have some room for jam, but are largely composed (You Enjoy Myself being the king here, but also Fluffhead, Divided Sky, Guyute, Reba…) On recent listens it’s these highly precise epics that I am drawn to. Tex and I not too long ago discussed the way Steely Dan is music that gets more appealing with age – and I think the same is true here. I have less of an inclination to hear Phish play a 45 minute Tweezer than to hear them play these, dare I say, prog rock pieces.

Because when you get right down to it, isn’t You Enjoy Myself an extension of prog rock? Phish always draws the Dead comparison (for understandable reasons), but these songs seem to be more from the catalog of a group like Yes or early Genesis. Evidence: complex time changes, super precise and high level playing, distinct segments. The best of these are highly composed pieces, where if there is a jam, it is built into one specific segment of the song. And like Steely Dan, as a slightly older Phish fan, and a fan of more complex prog type music than I used to be, this is what draws me in.

Of course, it’s a double edged sword where the live shows are concerned. Their 03/04 run was marred by brutally sloppy playing, and as a result any of these numbers sound absolutely terrible. On this run, from what I’ve heard (both live and from shows I’ve downloaded) they seem to be able to hit all of these complexities pretty well. Trey is not quite as skilled as he was in the band’s peak (93-95 by my watch), but he’s vastly improved from his 98-04 drugged out days.

My point? I guess just to say that if, like me, you have any appreciation for the complexities of this kind of sound, I think you should set aside 30 minutes and give You Enjoy Myself a whirl. Because really, when was the last time you listened to it?


drischord said...

I don't know if any written prose, no matter how passionate, is going to get me back into Phish. That ship sailed for me circa senior year of high school. (I've only seen them twice, so I was never on your level, VC.)

But that's just about my own taste. What's more important is the objective argument you present...

I don't really see the prog comparison, to be honest with you. For two reasons-- one, I know you referenced complex time changes, but offhand I can only think of one Phish song that really employs these-- and that's the preamble to the aforementioned "You Enjoy Myself." (And I should say that's simply the version I know from "A Live One." I don't actually own Junta, so I don't know what the studio version of the song does or does not include.) Beyond that, when I think of Phish, I think of almost exclusively 4/4- and that includes the main structure of You Enjoy Myself. I feel like pure prog is almost mandated to have constant shifts into odd time signatures, most specifically 11/8. But maybe Phish does this in their live jams; I'm just thinking about song structure.

Now I certainly think Phish offers tempo changes and feel changes-- the latter providing for some cool syncopated passages, but that's not really a prog trait as much as it is a funk trait. And actually, I think that's become their jumping off point more than anything. They sound like Grateful Dead plus funk, not prog.

The other reason that they aren't prog to me is that their records lack a conceptual unity in both music and lyrics. (The one exception might be Rift, which I don't know at all.) But the records that defined their "golden age"-- Lawn Boy, Picture of Nectar, Hoist, Billy Breathes-- seem like a hodge-podge to me. Which is fine. I like diverse albums. But prog groups (Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, King's X, Dream Theater) tend to hone in on thematic or motivic concepts and pursue them to the ends of the earth. I also think that, on record, they don't spend as much time exploring the distinct segments within songs that you mention. That seems to mostly manifest in live shows. (This of course speaks to the cool aspect of Phish that their songs live are almost completely different creations than the versions that exist on studio albums, but I don't think that helps the "prog" argument.)

Interestingly enough, if a working definition of prog pop involved taking catchy pop structures and fusing unorthodox time signatures and conceptually unified lyrics, a good poster child for the movement would be.... Sting.


drischord said...

All that said, I'd listen to Phish over the Grateful Dead any day.

Via Chicago said...

Excellent points you make. I certainly would not make the argument that Phish is a prog band by any stretch - just that they use prog more than is often recognized.

You know much more about time changes and the like, so I defer to you there, but I will say that this progy thing is almost exclusively from their earliest material - namely Junta. Not saying you must go out and buy that one, but it is where this sound is more often heard.

There's also some of this style heard in the early Gamehenge material, which is not a regularly released album, but they've played it complete a few times, and might as well be an album. That one most definitely has the album coherance you mention - as do Rift and Billy Breathes, though to a lesser degree. Their "golden age" albums you note are indeed a weird hodge podge - Necter in particular is just all over the place. They've never been a very good album band, which is again why I wouldn't dare call them a full on prog band, just a band that makes some prog-y songs.

As for the funk thing - this is a noted influence on them starting in late 96 when they covered Remain in Light and reaching its peak in Fall 97. They used the syncopation and other funk elements a lot there and a lot of people consider it their peak. Not me though, I think that era is kind of boring. The problem with them using funk elements is that these are highly skilled musicians, but they're technicians with not a ton of soul. Kind of like the most fun guys at the engineering party, you know? As a result, when they try to get a little sloppy and dirty, it can get kind of embarrassing. See their awful covers of Sabotage, Smells Like Teen Spirit, or even Rock and Roll Part 2 for good examples. On the flip side, when they cover material from like minded intelectual technicians (Zappa's Peaches en Regalia, Edgar Winter's Frankenstein, Boston's Foreplay/Long Time) it works like a charm.

Which all brings me back to my original point - that I've come to appreciate these guys more for the clean, clinical, complex sound than the crazy jams or the silly lyrics about weasel love.