Sharps & Flats

Phish could be a great pop band -- if all those damn trustafarians got out of the way.

Published May 22, 2000 10:00PM (EDT)

Phish "Farmhouse" (Elektra)

Fans of the noodly hippie band Phish are a blessing and a curse. The
Saab-driving trustafarians buy tickets for
hundreds of shows, spend millions of dollars on records and merchandise and encourage the furry quartet from Burlington, Vt., to follow
whatever whimsical road they wish to explore, be it switching instruments in mid-song or covering Chumbawamba's dizzy hit "Tubthumping." Yet as long as Phish is trailed by
unwashed and somewhat-dazed boarding-school refugees, the rest of the world will fail to see the band for what they are: the most
musically challenging and adventurous of all pop outfits working today.

The Phish camp seems to be aware of this dilemma. In this light, "Farmhouse," the eighth studio album over the last dozen years, plays
like the latest effort to reach an audience that doesn't wear Tevas. Like "The Story of the Ghost" (1998) or "Billy Breathes" (1996),
"Farmhouse" forgoes much of the shape-shifting pyrotechnics of the band's early studio albums in order to focus on discreet, even
pretty, songs. Only three of 12 tracks clock more than five minutes; on "Junta," the band's debut, half the songs broke the nine-minute

In large part, "Farmhouse" works. There's evidence that frontman Trey Anastasio is willing to harness his apparently endless impulse
to improvise; his fluid guitar stylings percolate throughout the album, yet rarely overwhelm. The album's title track, a countryish
evocation of Anastasio's new Vermont studio, is both endearing and catchy, so much so that phrases like "every man returns to dust"
and the shameless Bob Marley rip are easily forgiven.

Much of the rest of the album maintains a similar sly-yet-earnest vibe, whether on the gauzy dreaminess of "Bug" or the light-footed,
charging "Heavy Things." And the cheekily titled "The Inlaw Josey Wales," an acoustic-instrumental interlude, is the gentlest piece of
recorded music Phish has produced, proof that the band has a melodic sensibility to go with their more technical jams.

But ultimately "Farmhouse" exposes the dirty little secret of Phish: The band has not wanted for radio time because of their jam-band
rep, but because their songs lack the punch needed for drive-time success. The album's best tracks -- the white-boy funk of "Gotta
Jibboo," the exponentially expanding "Piper" -- yearn to stretch out and be given their full due; in concert, no doubt, they will become
more potent. Indeed, Anastasio and the rest of the gang -- bassist Mike Gordon, pianist and keyboardist Page McConnell, drummer Jon
Fishman and lyricist Tom Marshall -- are the best team of improvisers working today. But they'll never even crack the Top 40 when it
comes to crafting pop songs.

Phish is in an enviable position, able to pursue their whims and explore their passions, knowing they will have an appreciative audience
along the way. That the audience will never propel the band to a place next to
Britney Spears or N'Sync on the Billboard charts isn't really a
weakness. Someone should tell the band.

By Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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