The return of Phish has come with mixed reviews: wondrous and on-point live shows with short but regular pockets of deep jamming, but also a mostly anemic new album called Joy. The new songs felt, and feel, as if they traded Phish’s considerable personality for vanilla post-classic rock riffage, devoid of dissonance, humor, or risk. For some Phishheads, not to mention civilians, the idea of a bonus disc from Joy, housed within a $99 Joy Box deluxe edition, is an almost purely comic act.
Which is where the real punchline lies: there’s some good Phish music here.
More specifically, there’s Phish music that veers deliciously from the mirthless course set by Joy. On “If I Told You”—what might well be a Page McConnell solo track—the keyboardist harmonizes with himself atop a bed of a percussive synthesizer swirl, no drums or guitars in sight. Later, a circus organ wheezes in while the synth loop disintegrates. The song, in some real musical sense, wouldn’t fit in with the feel-good mandate of Joy, and its lack of Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, and Jon Fishman makes it understandable why it didn’t make the cut. It’s still better than what ended up on the album, though, which is something of a problem, but it’s also a sign of life. Likewise, one of Anastasio’s all-solo contributions does well for itself. Though still very much in the melodramatic vein of his recent ballads, the disc-closing “Liquid Time” finds a kind of intimacy missing from some of the full band arrangements, employing mouth percussion and a bed of acoustic guitars to reach a satisfyingly un-melodramatic resolution. Yet, somehow—maybe due to the mouth percussion—it still sounds like Phish. It’d be a hard trick to pull either of these songs together live, being drumless and all, but why not?
The album’s best cuts are outtakes from previous sessions. “In A Misty Glade” and “Shrine” are both Jon Fishman leftovers from 1998’s Story of the Ghost. The latter is a demo, absolutely, but a playfully off-time bit of reggae novelty with goofy lyrics that sounds exactly like a Phish song. Both have circulated for years on a collection of outtakes, but “Misty Glade,” especially, benefits from the fidelity of an official release. It sounds unlike anything in Phish’s catalogue — a bit of weirdly progressing psychedelia with extraordinarily lovely chord changes. (Maaaaaaybe a little like Ghost‘s “Fikus.”) The song’s arrangement fits together in a way that is monstrously Phish-like—conversational and effortless, a bass fill reacting to an echoing keyboard and completed by a small guitar phrase—but also completely new. There is nothing remotely goofy about the music here, but it nonetheless contains a fundamental offness. Something musical and unique. Though the track was recorded over 10 years ago, it is reassuring to think that this kind of music might still be on Phish’s mind. The barbershop Mike Gordon tune, “The Birdwatcher,” lost out to “Grind” (itself a Billy Breathes leftover) on Undermind, but—again—still nice to hear Phish thinking and writing like this, and hope that they will again one day engage the full spectrum of their skills, from barbershop harmonies and bluegrass licks to arrangement chops and an ear for ambient beauty, to create wild and emotionally surprising new music.
Which isn’t to say Party Time is all gooballs and roses. There’s some bunk stuff here, too, especially in the opening part of the album: the deflationary jambandery of the title track, the inclusion of “Let Me Lie” (which did make the cut on one of Anastasio’s solo albums), the meh grooves of “Windy City.” But, hey, they’re outtakes here, so whatevs. Bring them on. More please.