Round Room: A return to that organic Phish flavor

By Tim Calkins

I like Phish. Well, I like live Phish. Sure the studio albums are fine–they are, of course, the basis of the live stuff–but the studio fails to capture the brilliance of a live performance. This brilliance assumes a certain degree of talent and musicality that many commercial acts are wholly incapable of creating, but for the few who can, the live performance is the most accurate representation of their music. Phish falls into this category, which has mixed benefits. The studio album will not live up to the live experience, but the expectations that people have of the record will reflect this. That being said, I find Phish’s latest offering, Round Room to be on par with the level of studio album that the band has produced in the past.

The first listen, like many records, is somewhat deceptive. I found it lacking excitement, almost to the point of it boring me. I nearly gave up, but fortunately I persisted. Round Room seems to get better, more similar to live Phish, with every listen.

The Phish crew has remained the same for this record: Trey Anastasio on guitar, Mike Gordon on bass, Page McConnell on piano, and Jon Fishman on drums. Tom Marshall joins them as lyricist, and Peter Carini (the song “Carini” is named after him) is the engineer. This keeps the album as a logical continuation of their previous release, Farmhouse, but there are some differences. The most common criticism of Farmhouse was that it was too pop-oriented. Round Room returns to the previous style with three-10 minute songs completely unsuitable for radio play.

The album was hastily assembled during a series of rehearsals for Phish’s New Years Eve run. At the time of the rehearsals, Bryce Goggin, the producer, said, “These rough mixes seem to be turning into album cuts.” There was not too much pressure from Elektra either. The recording was done at the Barn, Mr. Anastasio’s personal studio. As he remarked, “It’s an improv barn.” About the album, Sylvia Rhone of Elektra said, “We do very well with Phish. They are reasonably successful financially because they’re very low-dough. Are they ever going to sell triple platinum? It’s a challenge that we welcome, and if we never get on top of it, it was still worthwhile creatively.”

That sort of hands-off attitude has allowed Phish to blossom creatively while working for the same label responsible for Metallica and Missy Elliot. The band has been with Elektra since 1992, and over time the two entities have grown comfortable with each other. While rehearsing for the NYE shows, Mr. Anastasio recalls, “We just called them up to say ‘We have an album, and you’ve got two choices: put it out before Christmas or wait until they’ve all got a tape of a live version after Christmas.'” Elektra opted for the former, and Round Room was released on December 10.

When Mr. Anastasio said that people would have tapes of a live version of the music after Christmas, he was commenting on the speed of the Phish tape-trading community. Most bands discourage (read: prohibit) taping, but Phish encourages it. Over the past two years, they have officially released 16 full-length shows, all between two and four discs long. For the New Year’s Eve run, comprised of four shows, the Live Phish Web site offers a download of each show for $15 a piece. All of the shows are available in MP3 and SHN format, along with cover art and liner notes. This embracing of online file sharing is certainly not a common feature among bands. Phish’s listening base is fairly unique; fans are, for the most part, honest and genuinely interested in the music. So there are no encryptions on these downloadable files, just a note about not sharing these digitally created shows. Some people inevitably will, but it speaks highly of fans, the band, and the relationship they share to have the honor system as the only restraint.

All that is wonderful and all, but the most exciting news about Phish is that they are going to continue touring through early 2003. On Valentine’s Day, they embark on a cross-country tour for about a month and a half. Chicago is a vital part of any cross-country tour, and on February 20, 2003, Phish will be playing the All State Arena. Tickets are sold out, but if you talk to your favorite bookie (or go on E-bay), you might have some luck.