Phish, 'Evolve' | Album Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Phish, 'Evolve'

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Published July 10, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Ethan Slayton

(JEMP Records, vinyl, CD, digital)

It's coming up on 40 years since Phish hatched from Burlington's '80s college rock scene. The band's ascent is still one of the great WTF?! moments in history: A crew of four scruffy dorks fused their love of Grateful Dead-level jams with an affinity for progressive rock such as early Genesis, Frank Zappa and NRBQ and somehow became one of the most successful live rock bands of all time.

That kind of triumph in such a small state has ingrained the band in the cultural identity of the Green Mountains. Vermont loves its musical success stories — see: Kahan, Noah and Potter, Grace — but the Phab Phour are on another level.

Even beyond the legion of jam fans, Vermonters feel Phish's influence, whether through altruistic pursuits such as the nonprofit WaterWheel Foundation or through the pop culture capital the state garners as a by-product of the band's fame. Earlier this year, for instance, comedian and game show host Drew Carey had an ecstatic meltdown after seeing Phish perform in Las Vegas at Sphere. How many bands do you know that have celebrities declaring themselves ready to swear off sex and "stick my dick in a blender" just to watch them play? (The band duly mailed Carey a signed blender.)

  • Ethan Slayton

Part of Phish's mystique is their reputation as one of the best live acts in the game. The band places among the highest-grossing tours every year it hits the road, with a massive fan base willing to travel to shows and festivals across the country and an ever-evolving set list that rewards repeat attendance by the phans.

That live mastery hasn't always been good for Phish's studio album output, however. Much like their spiritual predecessors, the Grateful Dead, Phish have been derided as a killer live band that never quite figured out how to translate their sound to records.

Granted, that's a bit of a lazy criticism of both bands. The Dead had plenty of studio triumphs, especially the acoustic grandeur of American Beauty. Phish have several successful studio records, too: Billy Breathes debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 in 1996, and the band has scored four No. 1 positions on the Billboard Vinyl Albums chart, most recently for its reissue of the 2002 album Round Room.

  • Ethan Slayton

Yet the perception has dogged the band, as its members are keenly aware.

"The complaint over the years has been 'Why don't Phish albums sound like Phish?'" guitarist, vocalist and primary songwriter Trey Anastasio wrote in a press release for the band's 16th studio album, out this week.

On the fittingly titled Evolve, Phish finally endeavored to capture their live sound on record. They set up in their farmhouse studio in Chittenden County, with 12 road-tested tunes ready to be cut fast and loose, and recorded the basic tracks in four days.

"Hey Stranger" kicks off the set: a jazzy, almost Randy Newman-esque number that first appeared on Anastasio's 2022 solo LP, Mercy. A COVID-19-era song with the refrain "Hey stranger / Come crash for a minute," the tune has become a live staple over the past several years, making it an ideal opener.

  • Ethan Slayton

"Oblivion" has all the elements of live Phish: a swampy, white-boy funk groove featuring drummer Jon Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon locked in and chugging along, while Anastasio and Page McConnell's snarling Hammond B-3 color all over the lines. It's easy to envision 20,000 fans rocking out at Madison Square Garden while the band intones "Oblivion awaits" over and over during the coda.

The album's title track is pure summer festival-anthem material. Phish have a unique quality to their sound, marrying big rock-and-roll swings with what can only be described as travel documentary-score vibes. "Evolve" moves along briskly, like sunlight on Lake Champlain, and would fit perfectly over a nice cooking show. But somehow you can tell the congenial, shimmering tune would get a lot of hands in the air during the chorus.

The band returns to Billy Breathes-era stadium rock with "A Wave of Hope." Anastasio kicks it off with a punchy guitar lick dripping with '70s arena-rock sleaze, after which he and McConnell trade solos while the band charges ahead. None of the songs on Evolve top the seven-minute mark, but it's safe to assume Phish could take "A Wave of Hope" out for a 20-minute spin and have the arena rollicking.

  • Ethan Slayton

Despite the condensed running times of the songs, the band largely succeeds in its efforts to document its power as a live act. The drums are just a little more live in the mix, and the vocal harmonies are perfectly rendered, without schmaltz or overproduction.

"What you hear is what we did on the road," McConnell wrote about the recording process. "Whatever we learned from playing [the songs] live — the right key, where to put the jam — we got in the studio."

It's hard to tell what Phish diehards will make of Evolve and whether it will scratch that live-show itch that drives so many phans to throw the tank of nitrous in the car and travel five hours to a show. But it's easily the band's most cohesive and purely listenable record in years — an ideal jumping-on point for new fans.

Evolve also contains a few gloriously weird tracks that call back to early albums such as 1990's Lawn Boy, which promised a much stranger band. "Life Saving Gun," which originally appeared on Anastasio and McConnell's 2023 collaboration January, pairs a pulsing krautrock rhythm with a grimy, thick kind of rock seldom heard from Phish. More of that, please.

In the end, who cares whether Phish designed the album to push back on the "only a live band" narrative? At this point in their career, they have nothing to prove to anyone but themselves. A single album isn't going to change their overall reputation, but Evolve gets an A for effort.

The record hits streaming services and record shops on Friday, July 12.

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