Billy Breathes by Phish

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Billy Breathes by PhishAs their sixth official studio album, Billy Breathes is an early indication of Phish moving towards more mainstream rock music. Here, the four-piece group combined folk, rock and psychedelic into standard-length, accessible numbers with a good sense of melody and song craft. As a result, this 1996 release remains one of the most popular albums by a band better known for its jam-band fused live performances and moderately sized by avidly dedicated fan base.

After the release of their first two official studio album, Junta in 1989 and Lawn Boy in 1990, Phish began to design intricate and highly interactive concerts. Guitarist and front man Trey Anastasio led the band in giving musical cues for the audience to react in certain ways and band members would often switch instruments to make their live shows truly original. As a result of the band’s growing popularity,they were signed to Elektra Records with 1992’s A Picture of Nectar being Phish’s first release on that label. This was followed by the studio albums Rift and Hoist in 1993 and 1994 respectively and the live album, A Live One, which became the group’s first gold-selling album in 1995.

After rehearsing at their independent recording studio in Vermont, the group migrated to Bearsville Studios in the Catskill mountains of nearby New York state to record in early 1996. Produced by Steve Lillywhite, the album features an almost equal split of compositions co-written by Anastasio and lyricist Tom Marshall and songs credited to all members of the band.


Billy Breathes by Phish
Released: October 15, 1996 (Elektra)
Produced by: Steve Lillywhite
Recorded: Bearsville Studios, Bearsville, NY, February–June 1996
Track Listing Group Musicians
Free
Character Zero
Waste
Taste
Cars Trucks Buses
Talk
Theme from the Bottom
Train Song
Bliss
Billy Breathes
Swept Away
Steep
Prince Caspian
Trey Anastasio – Lead Vocals, Guitar
Page McConnell – Keyboards, Vocals
Mike Gordon – Bass, Vocals
Jon Fishman – Drums, Vocals
Billy Breathes by Phish

The only song that can be considered a “hit’ from Billy Breathes is the opening track “Free”, which reached #11 on the Mainstream Rock charts. Starting with a straight and direct droning rock background, this inventive song crams a lot of differing musical phrases into its less-than-four-minute duration. The start of “Character Zero” is a sparse blues arrangement before breaking in with heavy rock elements, including a driving drum beat by Jon Fishman and a bouncy bass by Mike Gordan. “Waste” is mainly quiet acoustic ballad, with a kind of “slacker love story” theme. As the song progresses, there is a subtle building in arrangement and a good sense of melody by Anastasio. The bridge is the first real place where the song fully realizes its dynamics and is followed by an exquisite piano lead by Page McConnell.

Almost like a musical exercise in maintaining odd timing and rudiments, “Taste” gives the impression that all band members seem to be playing contrasting parts but somehow this all works at a certain tension-filled level. In contrast, McConnell’s short instrumental, “Cars Trucks Buses”, falls into a nice groove throughout and gives much space for his organ and piano leads. The same dreaming, descending acoustic riff is repeated through the entirety of “Talk”, with differing musical accompaniment along with a sing-songy vocal melody. At just under six and a half minutes, “Theme from the Bottom” is the longest track on the album. It starts with a simple, dark and dissonant piano which is soon joined by upbeat rhythmic groove for a nice counter-effect. The second half of the song comes a mainly instrumental blistering rock section. The urban-folk sounding “Train Song” was co-written by guest Joe Linitz and Gordon, who provides whimsical lead vocals for the track.

Phish

The latter part of the album features the products of many improvisations during the album’s pre-production. “Bliss” features slow acoustic textures which gradually fade into an atmospheric instrumental. The title track, “Billy Breathes” hearkens back to seventies soft folk with modest, understated vocals along with rich harmonies in the chorus. Then comes the excellent and unique bridge section with banjo joined by slight and sharp brass songs before Anatasio’s top level guitar lead ushers the song with interesting chord pattern behind to make it a high point on the album. The final three tsongs complement each other and sound like they could’ve been a single, cohesive suite. “Swept Away” is quiet and reserved acoustic folk in a very short moment of mood, like it could have been an intro to some television or theatrical performance. “Steep” is pure psychedelic driven by keyboard and pedal effects before a rich vocal section dominates the second half of short track. “Prince Caspian” meanders in before an electric riff acts as bedding for the song’s main hook. The song proper of this closer is quite repetitive to get its lyrical point across before it again slowly dissolves into a fade with one final “shock” rock riff reprise to end the song and album.

When recording was wrapping for Billy Breathes, the band made a snap decision to use a a closeup shot of Mike Gordon’s face as the album’s cover, something Anastasio later said he regretted. Nonetheless, the album sold very well and remains, along with 2000’s Farmhouse, as one of the commercial peaks of Phish’s long career.

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Lawn Boy by Phish

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Lawn Boy by PhishContinuing to forge their unique fusion rock sound, Phish‘s sophomore effort, Lawn Boy, is chock full of diverse diddys and extended jams. Predating the group’s major label signing, the album was originally released on vinyl and independent, using different independent labels for each medium. Led by guitarist and vocalist Trey Anastasio, the resulting work is laid back, and light throughout, but not without moments of real musical prowess and intensity, especially during the instrumental jams.

Following the self-release of the group’s 1989 debut double LP, Junta, Phish was rapidly becoming a favorite live act in New England. They had developed a unique rapport with their dedicate audience, which would come to be known as “Phans”. These antics included secret cues and special jams initiated by the four “granola rockers”.

Phish won the studio time used to record this album when they finished first-place in a “Rock Rumble” contest in Burlington, VT. Subsequently, the songs were recorded and mixed at Archer Studios in Winooski, VT on 2″ analog tape, with the group performing mostly of the takes live with few overdubs or extra effects. Lawn Boy was the first of many Phish albums to enlist Tom Marshall, a childhood friend of Anastasio’s, as lyrical composer. Marshall would go on to co-write nearly 100 Phish original compositions.


Lawn Boy by Phish
Released: September 21, 1990 (Rough Trade)
Produced by: Phish
Recorded: Archer Studios, Winooski, VT, May–December 1989
Track Listing Group Musicians
The Squirming Coil
Reba
My Sweet One
Split Open and Melt
The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony
Bathtub Gin
Run Like an Antelope
Lawn Boy
Bouncing Around the Room
Trey Anastasio
Lead Vocals, Guitars
Page McConnell
Piano, Keyboards, Vocals
Mike Gordon
Bass, Vocals
Jon Fishman
Drums, Vocals

“The Squirming Coil” begins the album, initially as piano/vocal ballad. After the brief intro, the song has a classic Genesis feel and approach with odd, quiet, but excellent musical interludes. The track ends with solo piano by Page McConnell, which lasts for about a minute. “Reba” is side one’s extended track, starting as a rather frivolous sing-songy tune with the repeated catch line; “bag it, tag it, sell iot to the butcher in the store…” The extended, jazz inspired jam in the mid-section is really quite impressive, including an extended guitar lead by Anastasio which is a highlight of the earlier part of the album. The song’s main theme returns in a creative way as a faded-in, Patriot-like march with drum rolls and whistles that lead to the final outro.

Drummer Jon Fishman compose “My Sweet One”, with a unique Bluegrass melody built on his rapid drumming. Between the verses there is some variety in phrasing and style, also returning to the good, down home harmonies which drive this track. “Split Open and Melt” is built on the funky bass riff of Mike Gordon while Fishman maintains a complex beat. The song employs the group :Giant Country Horns”, which are a bit off key (apparently intentional) to give the song a wild ambiance and assure that it probably couldn’t be played the same way twice.

The album’s original second side begins with “The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony”, Anastasio’s Country/jazz fusion instrumental with odd, added ambient party noise in the background. “Bathtub Gin” was co-written by Suzannah Goodman and is infectious an groovy in its musical approach. Here, chord changes are used for maximum effect while the beats are steady and consistent and the main melody is fine and enjoyable. “Run Like an Antelope” is the second side’s extended track and is built on a long intro that features deadened guitar notes, bouncy bass and an entertaining piano lead by McConnell, Next, a subtle but fantastic guitar lead by Anastasio drives the heart of this near-instrumental as the vocals do not arrive until way late in the song after the intense and extremely frenzied jam session.

“Lawn Boy” is a lounge-type song which remains true to its style throughout the two and a half minute duration. This title track was later re-mastered and remained a fan favorite throughout their career. The album ends with its strongest track. “Bouncing Around the Room” has great rhythms and harmonies, all built on Gordon’s crisp bass line and Fishman’s clicking percussion. This backdrop works well to showcase the fine vocals and, after two short verses, the song enters its extended climax as it subtly builds both complex vocals and musical intensity to end the album superbly.

Lawn Boy was re-released on Electra Records in 1992 and was eventually certified gold in 2004. This followed their 1991 major label debut of A Picture of Nectar and the group’s rapid national and international rise in popularity.

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Junta by Phish

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Junta by PhishOriginally released only on cassette, Junta by Phish, defies almost every convention for debut albums. The album was independently recorded and produced by the Vermont-based group but contains top-notch sound to complement the rich progressive-rock influenced epics that persist throughout the album’s lineup. Titled after the band’s first official manager, the album contains mainly nontraditional structures and arrangements based on jazz fusion and improvisation, resulting in symphonic-like epics where each member is given ample room to shine. The rare, few “basic” songs on Junta are mainly light and tend to lean towards the upbeat, funk side of the rock spectrum.

Phish was formed by guitarist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman at the University of Vermont in 1983 and they played their first live performance at the school’s cafeteria late that year. They cut their teeth in the mid eighties playing Grateful Dead songs. In 1985, keyboardist Page McConnell joined the group, completing the band’s four-piece lineup, which persists to this day. During this era, the group distributed at least six different experimental self-titled cassettes and Anastasio went so far as to write a nine-song concept album accompanied by a written thesis called The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday.

In 1988, the band began a rigorous practice schedule, which included locking themselves in a room and jamming for hours on end to “discover” new material. Junta is a product of a couple of these sessions and was brought as one piece to the studio to be recorded in its entirety.


Junta by Phish
Released: May 8, 1989 (self-release)
Produced by: Phish
Recorded: Euphoria Sound Studios, Revere, Massachusetts, 1988
Track Listing Group Musicians
Fee
You Enjoy Myself
Esther
Golgi Apparatus
Foam
Dinner and a Movie
The Divided Sky
David Bowie
Fluffhead
Fluff’s Travels
Contact
Trey Anastasio – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Page McConnell – Piano, Vocals
Mike Gordon – Bass, Vocals
Jonathan Fishman – Drums, Trombone, Vocals
 
Junta by Phish

 

Anastasio got the bulk of compositional credit on the album, starting with the opener “Fee”, a truly excellent song with Caribbean and jazz percussive beats and tones. The soaring vocals with staccato backing vocal scats shows that, although they rarely display it, the group has some vocal chops. The first epic, “You Enjoy Myself” is in sharp contrast to the melodic opener, making its arrival one of the few really awkward moments on the album. Improvised with odd timings, the piece works into a progressive waltz, driven by the organ and piano McConnell. Then at about the midway point, an excellent guitar rips in for a few fleeting moments before the climatic funk section starts along with one word chants and a strong bass by Gordon.

“Esther” takes the album on yet another wild turn, as lyric-rich journey which changes mood from carnival to church to an ultimate tranquil tragedy of drowning. The excellent piano riffs by McConnell are reminiscent of Tony Banks during the better Genesis years and the persistent groove by Fishman throughout provides the glue for the song through its nine and a half minutes. “Golgi Apparatus” starts as definite funk jam but soon morphs into something more rock oriented, perhaps the most rock-oriented song on the album, showing the versatility of the group. The next couple of tracks tend to get a bit repetitive. “Foam”, repeats the same mechanical pattern forged by a bass riff with sharp piano notes and guitar motifs above, while “Dinner and a Movie” gets a bit mundane lyrically, but is interesting musically. This is the part of the album where you’re just waiting for a release, the whole jam thing is a bit exhausting by this point.

Then comes the most rewarding song on the album, “The Divided Sky”. This mostly instrumental, twelve-minute epic begins with a nice acoustic intro with the perfect complement of xylophone by McConnell and bass by Gordon. The intro section is cut by deep vocal harmonies where the music stops completely before returning with a totally different feel and arrangement. Here the group methodically builds towards a guitar lead before breaking down to a quiet organ motif on which a new, signature guitar riff builds the song back up. Then comes the payoff of the greatest guitar lead on the album by Anatasio and a full-fledged musical jam by the entire band through the latter part of the song. In contrast, the follow-up eleven-minute “David Bowie”, while still a great jam, pales as a follow-up to “The Divided Sky”.

“Fluffhead” starts with a fine, elongated acoustic guitar riff and honky-tonk piano and breaks into a catchy (albeit silly) hook. Combined with the instrumental part “Fluff’s Travels” (which really isn’t a separate piece), this is the longest piece on the original album, which is saying something for an album like Junta. Another good guitar lead over some very odd chords and timing also make for, perhaps, the closest to a true jazz improv. Eventually it all releases into reprise of “Fluffhead” with some Gospel-like revival singing improvisation before it dissolves into a simple, strumming acoustic riff and a winding rendition of the opening riff. The album wraps with “Contact”, the sole composition by Gordon, whose slow bass riff introduces the song. Much like the album’s opener, this closer has a Latin feel and, while lyrics are again repetitive again, but not as mundane as on other songs and the tune is more than salvaged by some nice bass motifs and a bridge with romantic lyrics.

Junta finally got wide release when Elektra Records distributed a massive two CD, two-hour release in late 1992, three and a half years after the original cassette. The newer version included three bonus tracks – “Sanity”, “Icculus”, and the twenty-five minute “Union Federal” – along with a longer version of “Contact”. In 2012, a vinyl version of the original eleven song version of Junta was released, which in a way completed this classic album’s journey to the appropriate medium.

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