Phish: Round Room (Elektra)

What matters most to the Phans are the stylistic progressions (or regressions) of the sound.

Round Room, the tenth studio album from lovable neo-hippies Phish, has touched off strong emotions among the group’s rabid legions of followers. While the end of a two-year hiatus has the Phans rejoicing and scrambling for New Year’s Eve tickets (Madison Square Garden, some going for $500 a pop on eBay), the new album has raised some worried eyebrows; there’s a long thread running on the newsgroup debating whether “Mexican Cousin” is the worst song ever—by anyone.

The curse of being a superlative live act is that no one, including their fans, will take Phish’s albums very seriously. And as long as they continue to include silly songs like “My Sweet One,” “The Mango Song,” and now “Mock Song” on their albums, it’s a safe bet that nobody ever will. To their credit, they’ve infused enough dorky humor into their palette to both endear themselves to their fans and to keep critics at arm’s length.

But what matters most to the Phans are the stylistic progressions (or regressions) of the sound. That’s evident enough on Round Room: the vocal harmonies are much crisper, Trey Anastasio’s voice and guitar playing are hinting at a potential Jerry Garcia-esque decline, and the songwriting is still all over the place. While “Mexican Cousin” and “Mock Song” amount to little more than throwaways, “Pebbles and Marbles” and “Waves” are two of Phish’s most sophisticated and impressive works yet.

Bottom line: Round Room marks the end of a two-year stretch during which jam-band fans had to devote undue attention to the likes of String Cheese Incident and the Disco Biscuits. Isn’t that enough to make it an unqualified success?

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