PHISH -- Billy Breathes (Elektra)

When it comes to describing musical styles, Phish is one of those bands that defy description. Their musical influences run the gamut from rock to blues to jazz to bluegrass to lounge music and just about everything inbetween. They have a reputation for doing some interesting covers in concert also. If you go to a Phish show, it's not unusual to hear them play a bluegrass song and then follow it with a cover of AC/DC's "Highway to Hell", or maybe even Frank Zappa's "Peaches en Regalia". That's what makes the band so much fun--you never know what to expect.

Phish's latest studio effort is made up of songs that (for the most part) have been performed live for well over a year now. The biggest difference between the versions they've been playing onstage and what eventually made it to the CD is the length of the songs. Over the years, Phish has been compared to The Grateful Dead because of the band's extended improvisations in concert. On the new album, the band eliminated the long jams and kept the songs more concise and structured. The result is their most cohesive and focused album to date.

Things get off to a great start with the Beatle-esque rocker and first single, "Free". The song has a great hook. Listen to it once, then see if you can get it out of your head. "Character Zer0" is up next and is probably the hardest rocking track on the disc. The band slows it down a bit on "Waste". The end of song features some excellent fretwork by guitarist, Trey Anastasio. Unfortunately, it's buried in the mix. "Taste" (formerly known as "The Fog That Surrounds") is another highlight on the CD, and one of the band's favorites as well. Drummer Jon Fishman contributes some fine percussion work to the song, along with lead vocals on the bridge.

"Cars Trucks Buses" is a funky little instrumental that sounds like something you'd hear on a Meters record. The only bad thing about the song is that it's too short. "Theme From the Bottom" is another song that the band has been performing live for quite some time. Its acapella bridge shows another of the many musical influences within the band. It's also the only song with anything that resembles a 'jam'. One of the more unique cuts on Billy Breathes is "Train Song". The song's subtle guitar work and vocals sound almost like a cross between early Simon & Garfunkel and something you'd hear on The Beatles' White Album.

"Bliss" is an instrumental acoustic guitar track, delicately played by Anastasio, and also the beginning of the segued collection of songs that make up the rest of the CD. The title track is one of those songs that sounds like something you've heard before, but can't quite put your finger on. According to the band, it's also the song that evolved the most from the early recording sessions to what finally appeared on the CD. The next two cuts, "Swept Away" and "Steep", total less than three minutes combined. Yet, the airy atmosphere of the songs provide some of the CD's more memorable moments.

By the time you get to the end of the last song, "Prince Caspian", all you want to do is hit the play button again. For a band known for its long improvisational jams in concert, this CD is over much too quickly. Still, the more you listen to the CD, the better it gets. The tunes on Billy Breathes cover a lot of ground, yet the band manages to retain a new found sense of musical accessibility for the uninitiated. Forget all the comparisons, this is a band that has clearly come into its own.

© 1996 Steve Marshall