NPR logo Phish Update No. 6: The Music

How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love Phish

Phish Update No. 6: The Music

I'm halfway through my week of total Phish immersion, and I've yet to talk about the music. That fact itself is interesting to note. I've found it nearly impossible to separate the cult and culture of Phish from the band Phish. And perhaps I shouldn't. On the other hand, maybe the fact that Phish and its fans are thought of as synonymous is why people rarely do simply focus on the songs.

But I digress.

At first listen — and Monday evening literally marked my first listen — Phish comes across as a jazzy, jam-based band with leanings toward folk, funk, freak and frivolity (oh, and prog, but that throws off the alliteration). For non-Phish aficionados, here are some base references: Zappa, Beefheart, ELO, Flying Burrito Brothers and Soft Machine. But it's just as easy to be surprised by a Phish song and have it sound like none of the aforementioned; to hear hints of classical music, the grandiosity of a Who rock opera, or the melodic prowess of Lennon/McCartney (or maybe Garcia/Lesh).

And if that sounds like a heap of complimentary BS, I'll add that what I'm struggling with is that sometimes all of those elements take place in a single song. (I'll also admit that the use of trampolines on stage is a little too wacky for my taste.)

If jamming scares you, then Phish's music will be harder to take. But I like the jam, particularly in the live setting. And many of the great live bands playing today incorporate some element of jamming, sometimes to the chagrin of their fans. Stephen Malkmus (whether with Pavement or The Jicks), Yo La Tengo, Arcade Fire and Wilco are but a few of the bands that like to change up their songs on stage. And if you love Television and its wiry, taut albums but never saw the group live, then you wouldn't know that those terse songs were jammed out Dead-style in concert, sometimes stretching well beyond the 10-minute mark.

And, call me crazy, but I hear Phish in Minutemen, Man Man and even Sunset Rubdown.

Thus far, the most daunting element to this Phish endeavor has been that there is almost too much music. And by that, I mean that no one seems to agree on a single seminal studio album. Additionally, many Phish fans have told me point blank that the live show is the only true way to witness this band, and that in lieu of that experience, only the recordings of their live shows (and then only certain shows) exemplify Phish at its best. Compare that process to introducing friends to The Beatles, Led Zeppelin or The Clash, where you tell them a few albums to check out and you don't look back.

I do appreciate the care and thoughtfulness that Phish fans are taking in guiding me through this process. It all seems like further evidence that the band's fans are aware of how greatly misunderstood Phish can be, and that it's easy to get the wrong idea with a single song. Then again, I'd be grateful if there were a single song — or just a handful — as opposed to four versions of a song that I should hear. But I'm learning that Phish is about fluidity and caprice, so for right now, I'm just trying to go with the flow.

Songs I like so far: "You Enjoy Myself," "Esther," "David Bowie," "Dinner and a Movie," "The Divided Sky."