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CD Review- Phish fans jump for "Joy"

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Phish fans (phans?) are swimming care-free in their happy place again. The Vermont-based jam band is back and providing the perfect soundtrack for any loose-limbed dance party.

After more than four years of silence imposed by their supposed “breakup,” Phish has returned with the emotional yet experimental “Joy,” one of their finest studio releases and surely their best since 2001’s “Farmhouse.” It also re-unites the band with perfectionist producer Steve Lillywhite, who produced their 1996 release, "Billy Breathes."

From the opening lyrics of the nostalgic opener, “Backwards Down the Number Line,” singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio and his cohorts set the stage: "Happy happy, oh my friend/Blow out candles once again.” It's very catchy Phish at its best, a birthday card to Anastasio from lyricist Tom Marshall with the gratitude that comes from surviving hardship.

It’s a theme that Phish explores throughout the 10 tracks of “Joy.”

“You decide what it contains/How long it goes and what remains/The only rule is, it begins/Happy happy, oh my friend.” It’s the epitome of a Phish song, complete with bouncy groove, zanily cryptic chorus and the typically transcendent Trey guitar solo.

Happy happy joy joy – you almost expect them to break into that old Ren & Stimpy show ditty. Given the Phish yen for spontaneity and wackiness in their live shows, they just might.

Truth is, like their counter-culture forebears the Grateful Dead, Phish has never been revered by fans for their studio work, but rather for their epic improvisational live shows, filled with enough peaks and valleys to qualify as a trans-continental marathon.

Anastasio, the frontman, spent a portion of the band's hiatus battling addiction and the fallout from a drug arrest, and he bares his soul in the lyrics - especially on “Kill Devil Falls,” “Light” and “Twenty Years Later.”

The title track, "Joy," is written for Anastasio's sister, who passed away from cancer last year. The song’s chord structure and lyrics create not only a bittersweet elegy for his sister, but also a nod of generosity to the band’s patient and devoted fans: “We want you to be happy, because this is your song, too.”

The band jams out of the ethereal intro to "Light" with a searing self-examination that signals a defiant emergence from confusion. My vote for the best line of the album, sure to be the new mantra for slackers everywhere: “Got a blank space where my mind should be,” from the blues-rock romp “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan.”

This is Phish at its most personal and vulnerable, yet also accessible. There are moments of proto-Phish-ean cheesiness here, such as bassist Tom Gordon’s snappy “Sugar Shack;” keyboardist Page McConnell’s “I Been Around,” a breezy reflection on past indiscretions; and the catchy "Ocelot," which has a hook that will definitely rattle around in your head until you're sick of it.

Personally, my wife hates “Ocelot,” but it’s one of my favorite songs on the disc. Phish needs one of these catchy but lyrically inane “animal” songs (think “Llama” or “Guyute”) at least once an album. It is a definite crowd-pleaser in concert, too.

Then there’s the 13-minute-plus prog-rock tour de force, “Time Turns Elastic,” the penultimate track on the disc. The song reportedly took 278 takes to get exactly right, and the intricate musicianship, rich harmonies and ecstatic guitar work make the journey worthwhile. The song takes awhile to reveal its magic, but the payoff – when Phish finally arrives at a crunchy riff-laden landing spot - is simply tremendous.

“In and out of focus, time turns elastic.” Indeed, it’s like Phish never left.

Joy is available in several different formats, including CD, vinyl and the "Joy Box," which includes 10 Limited Edition posters designed for each of the album’s 10 songs, a complete second album entitled “Party Time,” and a DVD capturing live performances from the first half of Phish’s summer 2009 tour – including footage from the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival and the tour’s opening date at Fenway Park in Boston.

For more information, go to http://phish.com/index2.php.

Photo: Dave Vann