When Phish went into Bearsville Studios in March of 1997, they knew they were going to record, but they didn’t necessarily know what. In addition to some demos that Tom and Trey had made, they decided to go into the studio to jam, and what would come out would be anyone’s guess. After five days in Bearsville, NY during March, and five more in September, the band had a large amount of material to work with. After the March sessions, they selected their favorite segments of improv and began writing songs around them- lots of songs. Taking this unique approach to songwriting, much like “The Blob” from Billy Breathes, what would eventually emerge over the course of a year was Phish’s seventh studio album, The Story of the Ghost.
Phish largely reversed the process, focusing on what they do best, and based songs off their creative improvisation. Remember in Summer ’97 when the band came out with an arsenal of new tunes? These were Anastasio / Marshall songs written just before, and recorded during, these sessions; “Ghost,” “Limb by Limb,” “Piper,” “Dogs Stole Things,” Twist,” “Vultures,” “Velvet Sea”- I could go on. But the songwriting that resulted from the Bearsville Sessions was one of the most interesting eras of the band’s career. Songs such as “Birds of a Feather,” “Meat,” “Roggae,” and “Frankie Says,” all resulted directly from the group’s studio improvisation. Phish returned to Bearsville in September of ’97 for more experimentation. Then came more songs- “Fikus,” “Shafty,” “Black-Eyed Katy”- and when all was said and done, they had enough material not only for The Story of the Ghost, but also for the all instrumental Siket Disc, released in ’99. The Siket Disc was made entirely of outtakes from these same sessions. And there are still songs from these sessions we have never heard.
When Phish took their abundance of material back into the studios in April 1998, they had some deciding to do. With over forty songs from which to choose, they had to whittle out an album. Phish had flirted with the “concept album” with Rift and Billy Breathes, and would make a more outright attempt this time around. Aside from “Guyute,” and the radio-friendly “Birds of a Feather,” all the tracks resembled an apparition of its whole self that we had come to know live. Snippets of the entire picture faded in and out like ghosts passing in the night. With two to three minute musical passages, Phish created their most flowing album to date, piecing together a musical collage.
The sound of the album mirrored the band’s looser live sound of the era, led by Gordon’s round, prominent bass grooves. The clearest examples of this are found on “Ghost,” “Meat,” “Fikus,” “Shafty,” “Roggae,” and “The Moma Dance.” The musical character of the album was both funky and sparse, creating a spacious rhythmic palette throughout. “Guyute” was the one song that didn’t really fit in with the album’s vibe, though the fact that they finally recorded the complex composition offset its somewhat awkward placement.
At the end of the album, an insane “Moma” groove fades into the mix as the band begins to sing the lyrics right over the liquid funk. Just as “Ghost” brings the album in, “The Moma Dance” completes its circle, as the band layers the lyrics to “Ghost” over the crack-like groove. This is the perfect ending to a pretty perfect album; the only thing is, that it is not the ending. Phish added the two-minute ambient verse “End of Session” to close the album. This passage must be significant to the band, perhaps marking the literal end of their recording sessions, because it doesn’t necessarily fit. A beautiful snippet in its own right, its music diverges from anything on the record, and comes after the album’s natural conclusion. It translates like a “hidden track” that Phish decided to label, and perhaps that is the point.
Trey recently stated in Rolling Stone that he wasn’t convinced Phish had yet made a great album, upping the expectations for their 2009 installment. Yet, looking back through Phish’s catalog, Rift, Billy Breathes and The Story of the Ghost jump out as valiant attempts. With each of these albums, the band furthered the conceptual framework of what they were trying to do. While Rift had an overall story behind it, Billy Breathes took an idea and began translating it to music, painting a certain mood. However, when Phish dropped The Story of the Ghost in Fall of 1998, they released the most artistically coherent album of their career.
Check out The Phish Archive of reviews and articles about The Story of the Ghost from 1998.
DOWNLOAD OF THE DAY:
9.30.95 Shoreline, Mountain View, CA < TORRENT LINK
This performance at Shoreline marked the fourth show of the band’s massive Fall ’95 slate. This show marked the beginning of the band vs. audience chess matches which ran throughout the Fall and would eventually end in a 1-1 tie on New Year’s Eve at The Garden. Highlights include the first set “Reba” and “Antelope,” while the second set brings a hot “Runaway Jim” and a sinister “Mike’s” jam that segues into “Keyboard Cavalry”- not to mention Fish’s first glorious cover of Elvis. Trey also dedicated “Blue and Lonesome” to Jerry Garcia, in his amphitheatre, only months after he had passed. (Here is a link with an overlay of “Steal Your Face” on Shoreline as pointed out on yesterday’s picture- pretty cool.)
I: My Friend My Friend, Cars Trucks Buses, White Rabbit Jam*, Reba, Uncle Pen, Horn, Run Like an Antelope, Blue and Lonesome**, Sample in a Jar
II: Runaway Jim, Fog That Surrounds, If I Could, Scent of a Mule, Mike’s Song > Keyboard Cavalry, Weekapaug Groove, Suspicious Minds# > HYHU, Cavern
E: Amazing Grace, Good Times Bad Times
* The Band vs. Audience chess match is introduced. Page and a tourhead named Pooh played a 3-4 move intro to set up the board during the White Rabbit jam. #First time played. **Dedicated to Jerry Garcia.Tags: 1998, Albums