Phish, Junta

The best summation of Phish's early days is clearly this kinda-sorta-double album, first as a shorter cassette and then as the more common expanded CD issue, largely because it mixes their incredible capacity for artistically complex jams with quality studio production. "Fee," the lead-in track, is kind of a throwaway, but the magic starts in earnest with the stupendously expanded and almost 10 minute instrumental "You Enjoy Myself" with its multipart movements and textured, radiant melodies. In fact, the instrumentals are the dominant feature, at least for the first disc: other than a couple shouted accent lines, the snarky "David Bowie" (UB40) and my favourite "The Divided Sky" make up most of the runtime and well worth it. "Dinner and a Movie" is a fun novelty with its sole repeated line over multiple themes and variations, but of the other vocal tracks (the amusingly nonsensical "Golgi Apparatus" and the uninteresting "Foam") the standout is the surreal and haunting "Esther," a beautifully performed and fully realized story of a girl, a doll and avarice. I wasn't as enamoured of "Fluff's Travels," which comes off as disorganized rather than daring, though its introductory vocal libretto (of sorts) "Fluffhead" is an amusing lead-in; what rescues the second disc is the earworm "Contact" and its whimsical merger of the open road, American car fascination and basic automotive repair. An amazing surfeit of musical plenty, there's pretty much something in this album for every preference, and while it's never afraid to be weird it's never less than good. The CD issue unfortunately adds three live tracks of somewhat questionable quality, including the egregious 25-minute "Union Federal," less a jam session than a root canal, "Sanity," allegedly some sort of Jimmy Buffett pastiche that seemed funnier to the audience than me, and the (at least amusing) shaggy dog nutball closer "Icculus" ("if only our children were old enough to read Icculus"). "Go home," shouts Trey Anastasio(?) at the audience at one point, and that sounds like advice they should have taken. (Content: a single F-bomb in "Icculus.")