Phish: Round Room

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Phish

Album: Round Room
Label: Elektra

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On past Phish albums, the Vermont band made an effort to record tight, slickly produced rock songs. Only later, in concert, did the group expand its material into freeform, almost stream-of-consciousness journeys through popular culture and counterculture, finding fuzzy connections among Dave Brubeck, The Grateful Dead, Pavement, Beastie Boys, and Saturday-morning cartoons. The new Round Room, released with little warning following a lengthy hiatus, bucks that pattern, largely abandoning conventional song structure for airy half-melodies and hardcore improvisation. But without a strong launching pad, or the concert-hall freedom to slip in snippets of other artists' songs, Phish lurches in the direction of formless, tuneless vamping, not noticeably different from the output of countless music-minded stoners who lack a recording contract. Like its rock ancestors in The Grateful Dead, Phish tends to confuse sloppiness with warmth, which means that an otherwise winning song like Round Room's title track strains against a mumbly, off-key vocal performance and incessant piano tinkling. Cutesier numbers like the folky pro-tequila anthem "Mexican Cousin" and slender ballads like "Friday"; don't stand a chance; they sound like the work of a poorly miked wedding band sneaking in an original between flat readings of "Margaritaville" and "The Greatest Love Of All." The rough edges only fall away noticeably on the up-tempo, bluesy "46 Days," which raises the volume and energy levels and approximates the kind of hard-kicking rock that a big-time band is supposed to generate at will. Otherwise, Round Room fares best when it heads off into outer space, as on "Pebbles And Marbles," which starts off like Steely Dan in a country mood, then swings back and forth across one indelible hook, building in intensity without ever exploding into chaos. Even at nearly 12 minutes, the song sustains its mood, perhaps because its relaxed atmosphere best matches its creators' current mindset.

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