There’s a thin line between mellow and torpid, and Phish repose on that line all too calmly on Farmhouse, their eleventh album. It’s an album dominated by songs from Phish’s guitarist and main singer, Trey Anastasio; it was even recorded in his Vermont barn. He’s leading Phish’s latest attempt to come up with radio-length tracks that might spread their renown beyond the jam-band faithful. To hear why those fans fill arenas, try “First Tube” or the quickly accelerating “Piper,” two glimpses of Phish jams in motion that turn vamps into breezy journeys. But songs have always been the least of Phish’s assets; they’re just raw material for those jams.
Most of the songs on Farmhouse are going to need a lot of live resuscitation. Leaving behind the shape-shifting cleverness of older Phish fare like “It’s Ice,” they’re straightforward countryish rock that sets out to be genial but, with Anastasio’s nonchalant singing, comes off slightly smug. If Farmhouse is Anastasio calling the shots, maybe he’s not the group’s resident genius after all. Tom Marshall’s lyrics are about mild bummers or existential musings: rapacious girlfriends in the Allmans-style “Heavy Things,” complete withdrawal in the sluggish, wanna-be-R.E.M. dirge “Dirt,” dream-catching in the acoustic “Sleep.”
One of Phish’s problems is that their members are such music fans that they can’t help re-creating their idols; the minor-key groove of “Twist,” one of the album’s better songs, leads Anastasio to a Santana guitar simulation. Then again, most music fans wouldn’t be shameless enough to imitate the “Everything’s gonna be all right” phrase from Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry,” as Phish do in “Farmhouse.” Another problem is that Phish just ain’t that funky; “Sand” would like to be as cool as War’s “Cisco Kid” but comes off more like Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle.” These songs are bound to improve in concert; bring a tape recorder.