Big Boat


JEMP, 2016

REVIEW BY: Ken DiTomaso


This boat is kind of a mess. Phish's latest may be the least cohesive album they've ever made. Their other recent studio albums were relatively concise, but this one jumps from one thing to another seemingly without logic. Sometimes it's completely pedestrian and banal. Other times it takes risks, some of which pay off and some of which really don't.

The record is a weird one right out of the gate with “Friends,” a rare songwriting contribution from drummer Jon Fishman. Most of his original songs tend to be more on the silly side, but this is quite the thundering rocker and it comes off pretty well. But it doesn’t really represent the overall sound of the album much at all, so opening the record with something so atypical was a pretty bold move. From that point forward, however, the album switches to a slick, glossy, laidback sound, which is evident immediately on “Breath And Burning,” a squeaky-clean tribute to the band's recent trip to Mexico. If anything, it’s almost too clean-cut and risks going overboard into Jimmy Buffet territory. It doesn’t go quite that far (I think they toe the line pretty well), but for a lot of people, this might be too close for comfort. “Tide Turns” hits this zone as well, but like “Breath And Burning,” it's likeable enough that I'm fine with keeping it around.

“Blaze On” is a song that will get your head bobbing and your body moving. This album has a lot of lightweight pop songs, and this is the best of the bunch: it’s cheery, fun, and super catchy. The chorus has one of those tunes that have been looping over and over in my head since I first heard it. “No Men In No Man’s Land” is similar, but it's more of an outright rock song. This past summer, I was lucky enough to see the band play both of these songs in concert, and “No Men” was turned into an incredible highlight with bits and pieces of the song being weaved throughout the entire rest of the show. Suffice to say that the album version doesn’t do that, but it still does plenty to conjure up good memories. Both tracks sound just like what I imagined polished studio versions of these songs would sound like, and both are big winners in my books.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Perhaps the biggest highlight comes at the very end. “Petrichor” is a song adapted from one of Trey Anastasio’s orchestral compositions, and the band goes all-out with this song. There are horns, strings, and lots of cool percussion elements, too. It all sounds fantastic, but it’s also surprisingly light on its feet. Instead of aiming for intense climaxes or inventive jamming sections like you might expect from one of Phish's longer songs, “Petrichor” is relatively quiet, flowing very gently from section to section. It’s surprisingly pretty, too. Even though the album is decidedly a mixed bag, it’s worth checking out for “Petrichor” alone.

So that's the good stuff. Beyond that we get into iffy territory. This is an album with a lot of “what were they thinking?” moments. “Things People Do” is the most egregious of them all. What would otherwise be a fun bluegrass tune is turned into a bizarre lo-fi experimental interlude. It’s ugly as sin, and it’s completely baffling why they decided to put this on the album. Also, it rhymes the word “interest” with “Pinterest” which is just embarrassing. Quite the head scratcher.

“I Always Wanted It This Way” is another one that makes me raise an eyebrow. It's an awful experiment in synth pop that doesn’t sound anything like Phish. That wouldn’t be a bad thing if the song were actually good, but electronic music is not within this band’s skill-set, and it sticks out like a sore thumb. “Miss You” drags on for seven minutes, but it’s barely got enough ideas for half of that. The solo sections are quite solid and prevent the run-time from getting as tedious as it might have been otherwise, but nothing would have been lost if they had trimmed this tune down significantly.

There are also a handful of tunes that don't really make much of an impression at all. “More” and “Waking Up Dead” don't actively turn me off, but they don't do anything to raise my attention either. They're just kind of there taking up space. “Running Out Of Time” is an acoustic ballad so nondescript that every time I look at the track list I wonder if I might have skipped past it by mistake. Much better is “Home,” which almost falls into forgettable territory too but is saved by a handful of gung-ho instrumental sections that feel like the band is poised to launch into orbit at any moment. That right there is how you liven up what might have otherwise been a mediocre song, and I wish more of these weaker tracks did that.

This album is over an hour long and the bad bits stick out so obviously it’s baffling why they chose the tracklisting that they did. Fans of the band will inevitably be left wondering why songs like “Steam” (a dark funky tune with a great riff), “Mercury” (an epic nearly as good as “Petrichor”), and “Shade” (a better ballad than both “Miss You” and “Running Out Of Time”) didn’t make the album when so much lesser material did. As far as what we've got, I only like about half the songs here. That's not a great average, but the songs I liked I liked a lot and those tracks will keep me coming back. Big Boat might be the weakest of the three albums Phish have released since their reunion, but it's not without its merits. You may want to temper your expectations, but there are enough pleasant surprises along its run-time that make Big Boat still worth a shot.

Rating: C+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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