Following on from the slightly disappointing "Hoist" Phish had to create something better to retain their loyal support while bringing over new fans. The result was this immacculately crafted album full of catchy hooks while retaining several of their distinctive jams. The first track, Free, enters with a thumping chord showing a positive statement of intent, while Billy Breathes and Theme from the Bottom show Phish at their most beautiful as well as their funkiest. The mixture of quiet guitar accompaniments and rocking free-for-alls show a much more varied style compared to Hoist's blandness, something that they were to take on to both Story of the Ghost and Farmhouse. This is still the studio album to buy if you think Phish are only good when improvising live.
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To those uninitiated, Phish are an eclectic brand of folky-jazzy-pop-rock, very Amercian in their feel, but universal in their interest. Billy Breathes was my introduction to the band, and now reminds me of so many happy memories, of dreamy sunny days in New England weather. The album is inventive and kooky, but also extremely catchy, and shows what Phish are capable when they put their minds to it. The album verges from the rocky individuality of 'Free', to the gentle reflectiveness in 'Waste' and many shades in between. In every song Phish retain a sense of purpose and movement, and you feel when you reach the end of the album that you have travelled a very long way. It's cheerful and fun, relaxed and unique, and is the perfect acompaniment for a summer's day. I hope you come back for more, beacase this album has brought me back over and over, and I continue to enjoy it as much as I have since I first listened 6 years ago.
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Sometimes writing a great album seems to be an effort of will. Opening on a surprisingly "grunge" chord, Billy Breathes sounds (for about a split second) as though it will drag Phish out of their favoured decade, the `70s, and relocate them to the `90s. Nothing could be more misleading: if anything this album turns Phish's internal calendar back to the `60s.
The opening two tracks here ("Free" and "Character Zero") are immense rock anthems which throw up unexpected points of comparison with the widescreen pop of Oasis. Like the rest of the album, they anticipate stadium performance with the self-assurance of a band that already had a well-established reputation for live brilliance. None of this has any relationship to Phish's (broadly, "jazz-rock") roots, but it is so utterly convincing that only the most ardent purist could avoid being caught up in the mood.
Just as unexpected are the ballads. Oh, the choruses! The title track, with harmony vocals that recollect Brian Wilson in one of his more pensive moods, gives way to one of Trey's most economic and melodious solos. "Waste" is the drippiest of love songs, but pure and shameless enough to win over all but the hardest of hearts. "Talk", dominated by a Beatlesque falling chord arpeggio, is sweetly yearning. "Train Song", with Mike Gordon's thin but heartfelt vocals, sounds like an undiscovered archival folk recording, or perhaps a Pete Townshend demo. "Swept Away" harnesses the guitar figure from John Lennon's "Julia" as the departure point for a song that takes only a little over a minute to reach its chorus and fade out. "Theme from the Bottom" emerges from its verse to a chorus that is simply huge (a reworking perhaps, of earlier fan favourite "Golgi Apparatus") and cuts out dramatically for an unaccompanied vocal section destined (like so many of the album's effects) to drive wild a sea of adoring fans.
Page McConnell's piano is all over this album, notably on "Taste", which proceeds on a clever series of revolving instrumental figures, providing the album's finest musical moments, and on the upbeat jazz instrumental "Cars Trucks Buses", which he also wrote. These tracks provide a welcome element of complexity on an album that is otherwise amazingly simple and direct. Devotees of Trey's guitar will find less of him here than on earlier albums, but guitar heroics just wouldn't work in this context.
Some listeners will resist the sheer contrivance of these songs, nowhere more evident than in the repetitive closer "Prince Caspian", which concludes with a brief tease of the instrumental jam that might follow it. Nevertheless, Billy Breathes is one of those albums where a clever band finds out how effective it can be to play dumb.
Billy Breathes is undoubtedly Phish's best (and most accessible) studio album, but in many ways it absolutely defies classification. It's not that this is simply a collection of songs of different genres; its just that describing Phish as something like 'jazz-pop-rock' wouldn't really do justice to the impressively broad range of musical styles that they effortlessly merge together with great musicianship to create the final product.
The album seems to me to provide the full range from accessible to challenging, musically speaking. Songs such as 'Waste' and 'Train Song' are exquisitely crafted pop songs, catchy yet refined, and 'free' is full blown rock. At the opposite extreme we have the boisterous boogie of 'Cars Trucks Buses' , the cool blues of 'Character Zero' and the far more radical 'Taste' which I hear in a different time every time I listen to it. The other songs can be found somewhere in between these examples on the continuum, and are typically characterized by quirky yet thought provoking lyrics, and the odd moment of strange melodic brilliance.
Billy Breathes is never predictable, nor does it ever fully conform to convention. It is totally original, and has to be listened for this to be fully appreciated. It's an important album to have in anyone's collection, and represents the work of a special, fantastic and original band at their peak.
I am new to Phish and only have a three albums so far,(but there are now more on the way), so I don't know how well regarded Billy Breathes is compared with all the other many releases by the group. However, I only need a handful of listens to say this is one lovely collection of songs by anyones standards.
I am very much reminded of Spirit - a good thing - both musically and, especially, vocally where if I did not know better I would say they had got Randy California in as a guest singer. I also agree this is a great summers day record - it has that sunny, happy, relaxed feel which just makes you want to lie down in the open air and let the songs wash over you for three quarters of an hour.
There is no point picking out a particular favourite, because all the songs are good and the album is best listened to in it's entirety - and like all good records - it gets better and better the more you listen to it.