These are the best and worst of times for fans of the jam. More groups are noodling around on their instruments in search of transcendence (if not a record contract) than at any time since the early Seventies. But at what price? Many post-Grateful Dead pups stretch tunes because it's expected of them, not because they have anything new or surprising to say. Self-expression can be a wonderful thing, but arrangements that consist of soloists wanking away for minutes at a time while the other band members chill by the drum riser, waiting their turn, is hardly a trend worth applauding.
And then you have Phish, the Vermont-based mother ship of the jam-band nation. What sets guitarist Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman apart is that they jam as a band — as opposed to a collection of soloists with itchy trigger fingers. They're free-form but ego free. They've got chops, but they also have a sense of humor. Here's a band that, in concert, is just as liable to play lickety-split instrumental breaks in weird time signatures as it is to cover, unembellished, the entirety of the Who's Quadrophenia.
If there's a weak spot in Phish's arsenal, it has always been the songs themselves. Most of the band's early studio albums sound stiff, the tunes a muddle of half-baked ideas that didn't fully come alive until they were roasted under the stage lights. But with Billy Breathes (1996), the strained cleverness of the quartet's previous five studio releases gave way to a relaxed, bucolic groove in which melody reigned. The Story of the Ghost picks up that simpler, song-oriented thread in a most appealing fashion; it's a jam-band album for people who hate jam bands.
Story consists of fourteen relatively concise snippets culled from hours of studio workouts. There are hints of funk and jazz that never quite morph into either. That's no great loss, because the foursome has always sounded a bit clumsy when it has tried to swing. Instead, Phish exploit their subtlety like never before, with airy, uncluttered grooves and relaxed vocals that sound as if they were delivered between catnaps.
You want rock flash? Consult Dave Matthews or Blues Traveler. With the exception of the popping bass lines that drive "Birds of a Feather" and the guitar solo that darts out of "Limb by Limb," The Story of the Ghost traffics in mellowness. Even the frantic, Dixie Dregs-like boogie that erupts midway through "Guyute" is preceded by the sound of a Phisherman whistling a wan melody.
Because of this unhurried vibe, some may be tempted to dismiss Ghost as a song cycle for bong huggers. But once the buzz wears off, Phish still sound fresh. Among the disc's abundant charms: the loveliness of the melodies; the intricate but understated interaction of the instruments; and the life-affirming glow of the lyrics, as Phish continue their relentless attack on post-grunge self-pity.
Not everything works. In trying to make a kind of pop music that is tuneful, graceful and reassuring without actually resorting to verse/chorus pop structure, Phish sometimes fall short. "Fikus" and "Shafty" are more like fragments than actual songs, experiments that never quite coalesce. Mike Gordon sings "Fikus" in a high, soft voice that evokes the elfin mumble of British prog rocker Robert Wyatt, while percussion left over from a Tom Waits record clatters in the background; "Shafty" sounds like a low-key outtake from a blaxploitation-movie soundtrack.
Much more developed are "Meat," with its Hammond-organ hip sway, and the twisting acrobatics of "Guyute" — at eight and a half minutes, it's the sole track to break the five-minute barrier. On these tunes, Phish's fluid interplay is the primary attraction. But the soul of Story reveals itself during the album's second half, where simplicity, directness and brevity prevail. "Limb by Limb" layers voices into a call-and-response dialogue with a hint of reggae in the simmering syncopations. "Brian and Robert" suggests the Beach Boys at their most hymnlike with its wordless harmonies and gentle assurances aimed at loners and misfits.
"Water in the Sky" has the buoyancy of bluegrass; notes sparkle as complementary streams of melody cascade from Anastasio's guitar and McConnell's piano. It's a sound that joyously reflects the song's healing message: "Hear the voices flutter through/The barriers arranged by you." An even more soothing balm is applied by "Wading in the Velvet Sea," a psychedelic chantey that quietly builds into an anthem. It completes a string of songs in which the music pulls listeners in rather than knocking them back.
Anastasio, Fishman, Gordon and McConnell have nothing left to prove as instrumentalists, and they've moved beyond fancy finger exercises as their primary means of expression. With The Story of the Ghost, Phish affirm that songs, and not solos, are the soul of the jam.