Album Review | Fuego
By Jason Ramm
It’s hard to imagine this goofy and sometimes downright odd band we have grown to love would be able to reinvent themselves 30 years into their career but their new album, Fuego, signals changes in the stream. While the band debuted the rough versions of the album, then dubbed as Wingsuit, on 10/31/2013, we all got a glimpse of the band taking yet another step straight into the future. From the intricate title track to the dreamy Waiting All Night, Phish has compiled an eclectic group of tracks to form their latest studio offering. Although Wombat and Fuego have some of that typical Phish goofiness, tracks like Waiting All Night, The Line, and Sing Monica show the band’s devotion to thinking out of the box. Legendary Producer Bob Ezrin’s provides possibly the album’s greatest asset. I feel like Phish’s studio albums have often felt dry and bland from a production standpoint but Fuego’s production shines. Let’s take a track-by-track look at the new album.
The title track sets the bar high from the get-go. Bassist Mike Gordon and Keyboardist Page McConnell’s intro reminds me of classic rock operas. Drummer Jon Fishman and Guitarist Trey Anastasio then join in on the delicately intricate intro. The lyrics are a bit goofy but the music backing it takes us right to the lawn of our favorite outdoor venues. One thing Phish has always wanted to do is close the gap between their Live and Studio albums. This album achives that goal and Fuego is a prime example. A “chant” section reminiscient of Stash, blooms with energy. The first of two jam sections kicks in and Page’s organ swells draw me in instantly. Fishman’s snare rolls are the highlight of this section for me however. Trey weaves a fantastic solo up to a generous peak before the band lands back in the intro section with Mike and Page. The rest of the band is then muted as Trey’s guitar riff shines through before another “chant” section. The Chorus is incredibly Phishy as all four memebers sing different lines over each other but it all comes together to sound fantastic. The 2nd jam section then begins and I feel like this is where this song will excell in a live enviroment. It saw some action on 10/31/13 and even a little more on 12/31/13 but I feel like this summer it will become the band’s newest jam vehicle. Don’t be suprised to check Live Phish after the show and see a 30+ minute version! Page’s intro part then signals the outro wich once again features some fantastic snare rolls from Fishman. This is an instant classic Phish song that I feel will be absolutely huge this summer and beyond.
The intro begins with a classic off-beat Fishman drum beat while Mike and Page layer on top. Trey comes in with crisp vocals and some minimalistic guitar licks. The song, as many of us know, is about former College Basketball player Darius Washington’s heartbreaking missed free throws in the 2005 Conference USA Tournament. This song symbolizes Phish admitting that they haven’t always been able to live up to the crazy high expectations of their fans and they too feel pressure just as Darius did. I have heard fans give this chorus some grief but I fell in love with this song instantly and love the subdued chorus and even indie-rock-esque backing vocals. This song is a far departure from the Phish of old which has some fans weary but I love the new influence. Overall this is a very fun and uplifting song. I see it as more of a first set song in the live atmosphere but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the band mix it up as a set-ender or possibly even encore song. They performed it on the Late Show with David Letterman and I feel like they are making a bit of a push for this song to receive possibly some radio play.
Devotion To A Dream
Instantly bubbling with energy, Devotion To A Dream is a upbeat gospel-esque song that sounds, dare I say, like something the Grateful Dead would have put together. The driving drum beat and fun breakdown gives way to some of Trey’s best sounding vocals on any Phish studio album. He doesn’t try to over do it and the production value adds a lot as the vocals are extremely crisp. It’s kind of odd hearing a break-up song from the band but I love the lyrics and find them stuck in my head every time I hear it. Another great example of Phish taking sad lyrics and mixing them with upbeat backing music much like Sparkle. Fantastic backing vocals lend a lot of support and also sound great. Trey takes a great solo that sounds very similar to his live style as opposed to his suppressed soloing of albums past. The solo builds to a good peak before bringing it back together to a euphoric vocal outro. “It’s Today!” As we already saw on 12/29/13, Devotion to a Dream will make a great transition over to the live environment. I see it staying as a mid-2nd set energy burst, possibly even out of a long psychedelic jam. It would be a great way to kick the energy back up!
Halfway to the Moon
Although it debuted in 2010, 2013 was the year Phish finally realized how great of a song Halfway to the Moon could be. This groovy psychedelic Page McConnell penned song sounds amazing with Ezrin’s touch. Page’s vocals are dreamy and sound great. Mike’s bass line holds the song in place as Page tickles the Grand Piano in fantastic fashion. Trey is very reserved and mainly adds psychedelic layers over the base of the song. The backing vocals are a fantastic addition. Trey has always thrown in some backing but the way it came together on the album is sublime! Page’s piano solos are incredibly smooth and moving. Overall I think this song was the most improved by Ezrin’s production. It always had a great psychedelic feel but he managed to kick it up another notch. Having been played 13 times since 2010 and recently featured in the band’s set on Live on Letterman, we already have a feel for how the song works live. While it has been relegated to mainly the first set, I would love to see it emerge from a big jam this summer and possibly feature a big jam of its own. After listening to the recently released Live Bait 10, which can be downloaded for free here, I think a Halfway to the Moon->What’s the Use would be a fantastic jam!
The latest Trey and Tom Marshall collaboration provides the first dip in energy on the album. Trey starts the song solo while gusting winds and bells resound in the background before Page’s organ begins creeping in. Mike follows as does Fishman. I like the way the band fold each member in but overall I think this song is much better fit for Trey’s solo band. It is the one song on this album that I don’t love. I would have much rather seen Steam in its place. While the jam section does pick up the pace and even adds horns, it doesn’t save this song. Not saying it’s a bad song but it isn’t Phish. Even on the album it sounds as if it is played by Trey’s band. As for live, I hope they don’t play this one much. If they do I would hope it’s early in the 1st set. This is a potential set killer if played late in either set.
I have almost always been a fan of Phish’s forays into the world of “pop” music. Sing Monica is the latest addition to this group of songs. The upbeat song built on fun lyrics and a driving beat comes across great on the album. Page added in synthesizer that was not there for the live debut or 12/28/13 version and it adds a great element. Of all the songs on the album I did not expect this to be the song with my favorite Trey soloing but I have to give him credit for this one. As you think the song is going to end, they kick the song back into a jam as Trey solos in the background. It isn’t necessarily a true solo but I love the energy it brings to this song which came across somewhat flat in its debut. I can see this being a great set opener or even set closer if they can run with the jam a bit and keep the energy up. I am excited to hear what they do with this song live this year as the first two live versions were completely different.
If I had to pick a favorite song on this album I would be torn between this and Fuego but would probably have to lean towards this bluesy funk masterpiece from Mike Gordon and writing partner/bandmate Scott Murawski. Mike’s bass line is very prevalent and instantly lets you know this song is serious. Mike’s vocals song fantastic and even Fishman’s vocals sound great. Their call and response works great and I love the reverb added to Fishman’s voice. The horns kick in and wow are they perfect. Same with the female backing vocals. I relate this song to 70’s blues rockers Little Feat. I feel like Phish covering their classic album “Waiting in Columbus” had a big impact on this song. Trey eases into his solo with his classic growl effect. Although more subdued than in a live setting, he combines his wah pedal with a low pitch bend from his Whammy pedal to create a fantastic dirty tone. This is my favorite Trey effect lately so I was very glad to hear it on the album. He weaves a fantastic haunting solo through waves of organ and horns in way to a nice peak back into the lyrics. I see this song becoming the new funk staple in Phish’s catalog. While Tube has been relegated to a 4 minute energy boost, I see 555 taking its former role as a 2nd set monster. 2013 saw Phish dipping more and more into their funk of years past. 555 will give them a fantastic platform to build on that and hopefully take us into the stratosphere with a big jam this summer.
Waiting All Night
This dreamy psychedelic masterpiece is another song, along with Halfway to the Moon, that benefited greatly from producer Bob Ezrin. The song already had a good psychedelic feel but he really captured that vibe and capitalized on it here. The vocals sound great and dreamy. It gives you the illusion of floating through your mind. Mike’s bass line is fantastic and very odd compared to “typical” Phish. This is what I love about this album, they thought outside the box. He adds in some signature “Mike Bombs” with his Taurus pedal which are perfectly placed. The chorus features a beautiful call and response with Trey taking over the lead vocals. Once again the vocals are extremely crisp and fit the song perfectly. The solo is light and dreamy with Trey taking more of a psychedelic layering role than a lead guitarist role. It’s great to hear how connected the band is as they flow as one unit. While I have heard many people complain about the placement of this song on 12/28/13, i feel like that was more so due to coming after Silent in the Morning than anything. I still see this song doing well in the 2nd set if placed correctly. If a big jam landed into this dreaminess then segued into Waiting All Night this one could be a winner. I hope the band allows this jam to flow as I could see a more psychedelic Reba or Harry Hood-esque jam coming out of it.
As I watched the band debut what was then “Wingsuit” on 10/31/13, Wombat was the one song that stood out to me the most. I am a sucker for both Phish’s goofiness and funk. This song is a fun combination of both but is better suited for the live environment. On this album it comes across as somewhat flat, the vocals are very subdued and don’t have the fun feel of the live versions that preceded. The best parts of this album version are the fun sound effects and the addition of horns and female backing vocals. The jam starts to get good but is cut far too short. I figured this song would translate better live but I was still expecting more out of the studio version. As we have seen on 12/30/13, this song has some great jamming potential. The jam reminds me of Tube and could serve as a platform for a big funk jam. Although the studio version fell flat, I am sure this song will be a fun song live this summer and beyond.
As stated before, when the band debuted a lot of these songs on 10/31/13 the working title of the album was Wingsuit. I feel like Fuego fits better as the album title but do not sleep on this song! The slow slinky feel of the lyrics seems perfect for a sunset set ender this summer. The vocals again sound great, which is something Phish has been knocked for in the past but seems to keep getting better and better. A great instrumental build featuring some tribal drums from Fishman seems to signal the end of the song. Producer Bob Ezrin saved his best trick for last as he inserted a pause before a very Pink Floyd-esque outro solo from Trey. He rips into this solo as if it is a live show and gives this album a perfect ending.
Overall I find this album very satisfying. Highlights for me are numerous but if I had to choose a favorite it would be between Fuego and 555. My true highlight is the connection between Phish and producer Bob Ezrin. I feel like he is the first producer to truly capture Phish’s live vibe and bring that to the studio. This album bursts with energy and at times sounds as if it is a live recording. His use of reverb on vocals and additions of musical space added a fantastic element. He somehow made one of the most psychedelic bands sound even more psychedelic. All these years that Phish has tried to emulate their live sound in the studio have finally come full circle thanks to Ezrin. I hope Phish returns to the studio again and doesn’t wait 5 years to do it. For now let’s all kick back and enjoy this fantastic album as we look forward to a heavily hyped up summer tour. I am excited to see how these songs will grow. Keep an eye out for that 30+ minute Fuego!