Jam. It might as well be a four-letter word. Americans like their pop music to come neatly packaged, concise, and easily consumed–the mere mention of a jam (or any jelly-based derivative) can send snobs running away from the obligatory 17-minute flute and banjo duet that usually follow such claims. But say the words “studio” and “album,” one after another to your average Phish phanatic, and watch their mood rings turn an unsightly shade of green. It’s not because they don’t love, follow, and virtually stalk the boys from Vermont on the road, but for most a studio disc is generally a watered-down replacement for the live show–no jams, too much polish. And where Phish’s previous albums may have been tolerated because the tracks were known staples of their shows, most of these songs are new, having never been tested on a live audience.
Instead, after returning from a two-year hiatus, Phish answered the call for more music by cranking out Round Room, 78 minutes of lengthy improvisational noodling loosely packed around lyrics ranging from the painfully clichéd and sophomoric: “Why is the sun hot? / Why does it rain? / Why is their danger and why is their pain? / Why can’t the burden we carry go away?” (from the hokey rhyming dictionary-babble of “Friday”) to the sublimely drugged-out “Mock Song”: “Pliers, tension, toy store, grace / the human race.”
On the surface it may look like a mess, but a little digging reveals an album that both sides can, and should, approach with an open mind–a wildly eclectic batch of risk-taking tunes, along with some damn fine musicianship, could help win the mainstream vote, while jam-banders should know that this album bears as strong a resemblance to a live show in parts as any previous studio album (with the possible exception of 1988’s Junta).
For the fanatics, Round Room offers something no album has offered before–uptempo drawn-out jams (“bust outs,” for those in the know) which aren’t polished and sound straight from the woodshed; the album has a raw live energy unlike anything they’ve produced in ages. But, that’s not to say it’s poorly contrived–the jams feel as fleshed out as they would in a live setting. Rockers like “Walls Of The Cave” and “Pebbles and Marbles” test the ten-minute mark, leaving wide-open spaces for future improv, carried by the rambling guitar work of Trey Anastasio and the subtlety slick eternal drum fills of Jon Fishman. These songs make a follower appreciate the studio jams, while whetting the appetite for their future growth in the live arena.
Round Room does have a few weak spots, most evident when it reaches towards ballad territory. The country-drinking dirge that is “Mexican Cousin” has been known to generate moans in unison at live shows, and “Anything But Me” would work better in a half-empty piano bar. But slow songs notwithstanding, the high spots (pun intended) are abundant. “All Of These Dreams” could pass as a poppy alt-country Clem Snide-like standout, complete with sing-along chorus and harmonies worthy of Ben Folds Five. And, clocking in at less than four minutes, there isn’t even a pesky guitar solo to tune out. While songs like “Pebbles and Marbles” meander and sway a bit too much through the avenues of jazzy ambience for your average rock music fan, tracks like “46 Days” have an upbeat psychedelic push, and “Waves,” kicking off smoothly with jazzy drums and quiet samples, builds up to quiet thunder like songs by art psych-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sonic Youth.
Jam music may be an acquired taste, but ignoring a band based solely on reputation alone is an easy way to miss the talent they obviously possess. With Round Room, Phish once again appease those looking for their “raging Phish” live moments, while including bouncy pop, precious harmonies, and pensive moments for the uninitiated. It’s a solid achievement for the most maligned of genres–even if it won’t make the newbies strap on a pair of Birkenstocks.