First Appeared in The Music Box, May 1997, Volume 4, #5
Written by John Metzger
By now, everyone likely has read all of the reviews that have compared Billy Breathes to the Grateful Dead's 1970 masterpiece Workingman's Dead. While Phish has added acoustic sets to its shows, much like the Grateful Dead did in 1970, the comparisons really ought to stop there.
Phish has changed producers, once again, moving from Paul Fox to another former XTC affiliate, Steve Lillywhite. The result is that Billy Breathes boasts a dynamic soundscape that really captures the band's familiar sound, yet makes it fresh. If anything, this album is better described not as a Grateful Dead offshoot, but rather as an extension of the self-titled release from New Riders of the Purple Sage with a heavy dose of The Beach Boys, Meddle-era Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Who. Leave it to Lillywhite to capture Phish's classic rock roots.
Sure, Free borrows a riff from China Cat Sunflower, but that was on Aoxomoxoa not Workingman's Dead. For the record, NRPS's Garden of Eden comes closer: The tune also borrows a China Cat riff, while adding a Who element. Phish just eliminated its country edge.
The Beach Boys' influence first can be felt during the beautiful, yet desperate Waste, and this likely is due to Lillywhite's input. He, of course, worked very closely with XTC to capture a similar style. Also spurred by Lillywhite is Taste, which contains an introduction that borrows from The Las' self-titled release, and a beat that is swiped directly from XTC's Poor Skeleton Steps Out (which oddly enough was produced by Paul Fox).
Cars, Trucks, Buses is a great, little instrumental piece which speeds up some of the musical ideas from Waste and jams Phish-style. Too bad it's so short! Theme from the Bottom is pure Phish-y weirdness, and it sounds the most like the group's earlier work.
Bliss borrows from some of the beautiful acoustic Led Zeppelin numbers, and it leads to Billy Breathes, which features a recurrence of the Beach Boys' harmonies. The title track also brings back the musical themes of Waste, though the delicate banjo solo is a return to the appropriations from NRPS. The Pink Floyd influence first appears in Talk and continues much more prominently in Swept Away and Steep before giving way to the majestic Prince Caspian, which closes out the disc.
Despite all the borrowing, there is still an underlying feel that is unique to Phish's music. The group simply has synthesized all this together to create a loosely conceptual album about the birth of singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio's son as well as the band's life on the road. Billy Breathes is an excellent piece, and it rivals Rift as the group's most cohesive and best album to date.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 1997 The Music Box