As Phish started leaking their album track by track on the Internet, I heard a lot of production. In fact, when I listened to those “Waiting All Night” and “The Line” from NPR, the production was just about all I heard. My thoughts totally transformed today, however, when I spun Fuego on vinyl for the first time on my home system. The music completely opened up, gaining a richness and depth that NPR’s mp3s could never translate. And above all else, I could hear and appreciate Bob Ezrin’s production as it was meant to be heard. As opposed to adding a glossy layer to the music that dilutes the band’s interactions, Ezrin’s work enhances the playing of Phish, adding dreamy layers that provide just enough aural cushion to support the music and make it pop. But the core of the Fuego’s sound is live Phish. In choosing to record live takes with all band members in the same room playing together, Ezrin retained thePhish’s sound capturing a vivid canvas with which to work. He then stepped to the plate as the temporary fifth member of the band, whose influence is felt on Fuego as much as the other fours’.
Ezrin’s greatest success on Fuego is taking a stylistically diverse set of songs and making them into a cohesive whole. The album possesses a flow from beginning to end, and more particularly, retains a sound throughout that is anchored in its retro, psych-pop production. Musically, Fuego contains a certain dreaminess that comes through in waves on tracks like “Halfway to the Moon,” “Winterqueen,” “Waiting All Night,” “Wingsuit” and the title track, itself. This musical thread provides a cerebral narrative to the album, one that touches on themes of loss, hope and, ultimately, redemption.
Though Fuego’s story is told in chapters via one well-executed track after another, its two gems are undoubtedly its bookends, “Fuego” and “Wingsuit.” In fact, these two tracks may just be the pinnacle of Phish’s studio repertoire. Both contain unparalleled work from Ezrin, leaving “Fuego” sounding like a medieval adventure, and “Wingsuit” like a lucid dream. Each possess a strong emotional quality that will undoubtedly translate to the live stage. Though Phish has recorded plenty of great songs over the course of their career, “Fuego” and “Wingsuit” represent legitimate studio tracks that can stand up against the work of other great artists.
Interspersed in the album’s surreal narrative are the upbeat selections “The Line,” “Devotion to a Dream” and “Sing Monica.” “The Line” provides an excellent sonic juxtaposition to “Fuego,” and flows impeccably from the title track. “Devotion to a Dream,” sounds quite good on the album and fits in with the album’s thematic narrative congruently. The overlapping chorus of this one really shines with the Ezrin’s assistance, though “Devotion’s” bluesy, Allmans-esque palette is one of Fuego’s furthest stylistic stretches. “Monica” is another, and this one barely rounds into place. Its brevity, however, makes it only a speed bump and not a true obstacle to flow. Rounding out Fuego are “555” and “Wombat.” Gordon’s writing contribution to the album, “555” came out as one of its highlights, as the horns and backing singers further the bluesy grit of the song. Upon listening to the album as a whole, “Wombat” didn’t strike me as so out of place. Silly? Sure. With its placement between “Waiting All Night” and “Wingsuit,” it likens one of those tripped out dream interludes make any sense in the morning. But the inclusion of “Wombat” and “Monica” suggest the only place where Phish might have dropped the ball on this album—leaving off “Steam.” Not only is it a more-than-worthy track that could supplant both shorter ones, it absolutely fits the fantasy-like theme of Fuego. But who am I to blow against the wind.
Fuego succeeds where so many Phish albums fall have fallen short, its whole amounts to more than the sum of its parts. Though it is not a perfect record, its sonic cohesion and thematic narrative and outstanding production bump it right up to the top shelf of Phish’s twelve. I am not here to argue that it is their best record, for that is purely subjective, however I will nominate it as their best produced effort, and one that deserves recognition among the band’s strongest recordings. It’s been a while since Phish emerged from the studio with an album that they could hold up not only to their fan base, but to the industry at large and garner acclaim. Fuego is such a record, and the band should be proud.