Elektra Records, 1996
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/29/1997
Trey Anastasio and Phish have an announcement to make: You can stop making all comparisons to them as "Grateful Dead Junior". With the release of Billy Breathes, the East Coast-based quartet have arrived as a musical force to be dealt with.
Their first studio release in two years, Phish put aside a lot of the free-form jamming they are now known for, and have released an album of tightly-written, tightly-played material. While the resulting vibe may take a little while for Phish fans to get used to, newcomers will find Billy Breathes to be a breath of fresh air.
The first single and lead track, "Free," is a fine example of how powerful this band really is. Unlike many bands where the lead guitar reigns supreme, guitarist/vocalist Anastasio steps back and lets his bandmates do some of the talking. The piano work from Page McConnell is superb, as is the bass work of Mike Gordon and the drum groove laid down by Jon Fishman. "Free" is a song that defies categorization, and is addictive to listen to. (And, in the tradition of Phish, the band gave "Free"a workout on the road before laying it down on tape.)
Phish fans fear not; they still know how to lay down a groove that will create dancing in the aisles (or, in this case, in front of the stereo). "Character Zero" starts off mild with only bass and vocals, but quickly builds into a crescendo of rhythm. Likewise, the album's closer, "Prince Caspian," is one that will probably fit right in as a show closer a la "Not Fade Away" for the Grateful Dead. And if there was ever any doubt to the musical talents of these guys, one listen to "Cars Trucks Buses" will eliminate it.
I don't understand how there could be any question about their musical talent in the first place. Anastasio is one of the better guitarists to come forward in a long time. But while some players may whip out a hundred notes to emphasize a point, Anastasio may bend one or two notes in the same space. Gordon is able to get quite funky on the bass when it's called for, and technical at other times. If anything, this album is the showpiece of Fishman, who proves once and for all that he is an astounding drummer (though his prowess was proven on other albums).
As radio-friendly as the album is, Billy Breathes is, at times, almost a little too mellow. There's no doubt that cuts like "Waste," "Talk" and the title track are pretty and well-performed. However, being an older Phish fan, I long for Anastasio and crew to lean back and whip out a slab of absolute frenzy, such as "Llama" from their major label debut A Picture Of Nectar. However, these "weaknesses" do not take away from the album's power.
Will radio finally realize what they've been missing and bring Phish to the mainstream? Hopefully - though the album has been criminally ignored by all but alternative radio, it's not too late to make this album a hit.. Will Billy Breathes reveal one of the best-kept secrets in the music industry? It should. Is this Phish's best album yet? Undeniably.