Round Room – Phish

Label: Elektra

Regrouped in the studio under the pretence of rehearsing for a New Year’s Eve show, and some two years since the release of last album Farmhouse, Phish return with Round Room. Produced in a 4 day stint after only 2 weeks of rehearsal (and to be fair, it shows) Round Room – looser and more relaxed perhaps than its predecessor – still offers up a staggering 78 minutes of shuffling, tangential fibres and threads.

Kicking off with the 10-minute song, ‘Pebbles and Marbles’, you simply know where you are heading for the next hour and a quarter. The lazy, fuzzy chops of the guitar, the sizzling of a cymbal and tinkling of a piano with little or no sense of direction, the pregnant pauses, the woozily working through of scales. Fold your arms, brush down your corduroy wranglers and throw the neckerchief  loosely around your neck: you have entered the smug, always indulgent world of blues and jazz: or indeed ‘blazz’ if you’re ridiculous enough to pursue it.

Lyrically too, it’s what’s pretty much expected: portentous and encrypted in interminable – never mind extended – metaphors of nature and beyond; the following couplet being adequate illustration enough:

Pebbles and Marbles like words from a friend/Make us hold tight but are lost in the end

From here on the songs’ protagonist and his none too limited range of emotions becomes everything from ‘a satellite’, ‘a shooting star’, ‘a mountain, a cave’, a ‘subterranean fountain’ and a ‘foggy sky’; anything, in fact, but a three dimensional and credible emotee.

It’s not all bad though, title track ‘Round Room’ from the pen of Mike Gordon and friend and associate Joe Linitz is amusing and entertaining enough. Whimsical and off the wall, the loosely South American time signatures and self-deprecating, daft as a brush delivery make for a bizarre and uplifting mood swing. The only disappointment is that it’s over all too soon before the desperately boozy and throwaway dirge of ‘Mexican Cousin’ stumbles in. Like most things that seem funny when you first think of them, in translation and in time, it soon becomes apparent that it was really never amusing in the first place – regardless of the context or the occasion. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the ‘throwaway’ or the ‘absurd’. On the contrary, The Beatles’ ‘White Album’ is a joyful example of a largely satisfying catastrophe of half realised ideas, and folks like Camper Van Beethoven made an entire career out of it.

‘Seven Below’ evens the hand slightly in a Crosby Stills and Nash– meet-Carlos Santana kind of way: breezy, harmonious and very near enjoyable for the first three minutes. The downside is that the song then extends into a further six minutes of what can only be deemed to be ‘preventable’ jamming that neither augments nor contrasts the near delightful first three.

It’s difficult to believe, but from pretty much the same raw materials, fellow Phishpians like Hem whittled an album of far handsomer and gentle mettle in ‘Rabbit Songs’. But that’s the nature of jamming: sometimes the output is outstanding; sometimes (and more often) its practitioners should be hit on the head with a shovel.

Using the same crazily confused metaphors of the album, ‘Round Room’, is for all its consummate professionalism the squarest of pegs from the dampest of squibs. But don’t just take my word for it go listen it yourselves. By the end you’ll know either way. If you don’t pass out beforehand, that is.

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Release: Phish - Round Room
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Released: 27 January 2003