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Rock

Phish

Fuego

[Jemp Records]

4 stars

Phish did not need to make another studio album. One of the most consistently successful touring bands of the last quarter century, the group has continued to prosper simply by touring, and could continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Many of the band’s fans would have been fine with that.

So “Fuego” is clearly a labor of love. It’s not likely to earn the band a ton of money. No one really makes money from albums any more, unless they’re Miranda Lambert or Jay-Z. It is also not likely to earn the band new fans, because anyone who isn’t interested in Phish already is not likely to hear it. If there’s a radio station the country that isn’t being broadcast to a tiny audience from a college campus that plays any Phish music, I’m unaware of it.

So “Fuego” was made by the band for the band, and for those amongst its large fanbase willing to spend time experiencing Phish in the present tense, rather than simply spinning their favorite live recording from the band’s 1997 tour, or whatever. We should be glad the band bothered. “Fuego” is one of the finest albums of Phish’s career. It’s fresh, vibrant, inventive, brilliantly performed, and dynamic.

It also benefits greatly from the presence of producer Bob Ezrin – yeah, the guy who produced Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” and several other records no self-respecting student of rock history should be willing to find themselves without . Ezrin did exactly what he should have - he pushed the band to fine-tune its compositions, then recorded them performing those compositions with lush clarity. He also helped the band attain the strongest vocal arrangements of its career.

The ten songs that comprise “Fuego” are indeed fiery, but they are also subtle, intricate, and both musically and emotionally compelling. There’s much of what Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Jon Fishman and Page McConnell have always done so well here - the knotty but jubilant prog-rock of the title tune; the strident and singable rockers like “Devotion To A Dream” and “Sing Monica”; the gorgeous balladry evinced by “Winterqueen” and “The Line”; the Zappa-esque complexity and goofiness of “Wombat”; the funk-soul of “555”.

But there’s something else here, too, something best personified by the lush, lambent psychedelia of “Waiting All Night,” the album’s piece de resistance. It’s the beautiful unfolding of a new quality in the band’s collective songwriting, a bittersweet but psychedelic beauty that needs no lengthy jam section, no jaw-dropping improvisations from the four virtuosos who comprise the band, to get across. It’s simply a fantastic pop song with great playing supporting it.

Thirty years into this trip, Phish continues to mean something because it continues to grow, evolve, and morph. “Fuego” has the fire. Grab some.

– Jeff Miers