I will be featuring a regular “column” on firsttube.com from now on, updated periodically, called “Making the Case for My Favorites.” I will attempt to justify why my favorite Phish songs are worthy of praise, and why my least favorites are less likeable. I encourage everyone to participate in the comments if you’re interested, and if you get the urge, use the “submit story” link to write your own “Making the Case.” The first “Making the Case,” will be about a few songs.
I believe that Billy Breathes is the best recorded Phish song ever, and possibly one of my favorite recorded songs ever. I’ll even attempt to justify it. I’ll also try to convince you that Limb by Limb defines Phish as a “great” band.
The Billy Breathes album is a studio masterpiece. From the opening thumps of Free to the final bubbles of Prince Caspian, Billy follows a consistent theme, so much so that the last half of the album is linked together in what’s known as “the Blob.” The Blob got its name based on the fact that it’s one super long song, all in the same keys, sharing, in some cases, some lyrics, but certainly some medlodies. Billy Breathes, in particular, excels at breaking boundaries with all the modulated guitar, the synth tracks, and the instrumental harmonies. The sweet choruses include many lines of harmony to which, in concert, you’ll see everyone on stages contributes. But the real key to making Billy bigger than life is Trey’s incredible guitar work in the second half of the song. Overlaid by Page’s astounding piano work, and supported by the “know when to sit back ” work of Mike and Fish, Trey simply blares out a masterful solo that in spots, gives me chills. There’s a single note, even, where he overdubs harmony with himself that gets me every time. At the end, his noodling on the same 3 or 4 notes is fantastic. The song doesn’t go on too long, but it doesn’t cut you short. In my mind, it hangs high on the list of great song not too far below “A Day in the Life” by the Beatles.
As for Limb by Limb, the song clearly went through some iterations. As it evolved, Fishman was working with JMP, and was taking lesssons to become a better drummer. When Trey and Tom came up with the “what th hell is going on?” drumline, Fish was able to reproduce it effortlessly. Fish is the star of the show, but the cool cat lyrical tradeoff between Trey and Page often leave me wondering whose lines I should sing. Mike’s awesome thumping lays the ground for Trey’s off note upward strums and Page sprinkles a little piano into the mix. The question is, with everyone holding back, where’s all that noise coming from?
Phish is a rock band, first and foremost. Though they break out reggae (Ya Mar, Have Mercy), blues (Back at the Chicken Shack, My Soul), bluegrass (MMGAMOIO, Nellie Kane, Ginseng Sullivan), amongst other more typical genres (prog rock, pop, etc), the are clearly a rock band. So, to see them write an anti-rock song like Limb by Limb, and have it be original – not a Marley-wannabe off-beat steel drum ditty, but sorta reggae, not a dance song, but awfully contagious – it’s just….satisfying. It certainly helps me explain to people why Phish are amazing songwriters over and above musicians.
In time, I’ll delve into some other songs and why I think they’re great (like Round Room), or even why I think some are, as it’s been phrased, “urine in our ears.” Sound off below if you have a song you love!