Throughout all my musical explorations over these years Phish was part of my vocabulary the whole time. It's not something that really any one else I knew was listening to, and it's not like Phish got much play on the radio, but I kept on listening.
The album Billy Breathes felt like a significant departure for the band. For a band known for their live performances, it was clear that this was a studio album through and through. From the first couple songs you could hear that the band was trying to create something tighter. The songs are reasonable in length, there are some lyrics that actually try, there are nice vocal harmonies, and there’s a distinct lack of meandering jams. This music was designed to be listened to in this way, recorded, not live. Which for Phish was… different.
Those first couple tracks felt more like singles, and they just don't stand up to repeated listening as well. But the B-side of this album is solid. Can I still call it a B-side when I'm talking about the remaining 10 of 13 tracks?. It just all sounds like a B-side. It's got a gentle consistent sound. It's actually hard to pick out the individual songs, because everything flows together so well.
I've mentioned before a habit of preparing for sleep with music; finding albums that had good endings so that I could just leave them on to play me out. This was definitely one of those albums. Maybe the last one, as that the habit didn't last beyond high school.
I was going to nominate "Prince Caspian" to represent this album in the timeline. It's the last song on the album, and would always bring me back awake a bit (albeit in a happy gentle kind of way). But after further reflection it's the title track, "Billy Breathes", that really sums up the whole run for me. It's understated, mellow, soothing, vocally compelling and musically diverse. And I love how it leads into "Swept Away", which then is turned slightly nightmarish for "Steep", which sets you up for the fresh breath of morning that is "Caspian". Many albums ago Phish had tried to do a dream concept album, Rift, but Billy Breathes pulls off the same idea so much better.
Three years later I would begin dating the woman who would eventually become my wife. That first year I gave her a Christmas gift, which was a bowl I painted for her... and this album. Billy Breathes had stayed in my head space that whole time, and really felt like something that showed a key part of my musical experience.
Remember MMW from before? Groovy organs, maybe sometimes a little crazy? Well Shack Man brought a little more of that groove out. And my friend Kevin, who introduced me to the band, was not just listening to this, he was working on emulating it. Piano was taking a bigger role in his life, and he was starting to work towards the musician/composer that he would eventually become.
I think it was a school talent show, but I can't actually remember specifically. I just remember Kevin performing "Bubblehouse". Which is a bit of a gimmicky song. It increases in pace until it gets to unmaintainable place. Then some random stuff happens that doesn't really work well before it drops right back into the original riff at exactly the right speed (at 2:50, again at 3:33). It's one of those moments where departing from center makes center more valuable. Contrast. But the cost on this contrast is slightly unbalanced, limiting my enjoyment. Still, it was much fun to see my friend frantically hammer away at those keys. I don't know if he considers it a turning point in his life, but from my perspective it felt like it was.
I'd be remiss without mention "Dracula". Not because it's tied into another specific memory, but because it's a great MMW song from this album.
I'm in my bedroom, playing with LEGOs. I'm too old to be playing with LEGOs, but LEGOs are awesome, so I don't care. I still don't. A song comes on the radio. It sounds kind of like "Sledgehammer". When the song is over the DJ says it’s by some band called "The Dave Matthews Band". I remark to myself that this is a stupid name for a band. I return to my LEGOs.
That stupidly named band will become a critical part of my musical experience from late high school to early college, but at this moment they leave almost no impact whatsoever. I have the memory, but in no way did I rush out and buy the album, or even look the band up.
The older we got the less my brother and I hung out, but there was still overlap. Some of his friends I liked, some I didn't. Some of them also became my friends. One of those was Ethan.
At our high school, seniors had to put together some sort of senior project as part of their graduation requirement. Ethan was interested in film making, so he decided to make a movie. More specifically, a stop-motion animated movie. I ended up being involved as the character creator and animator. The title: "Timmy and the Space Creatures".
In the movie aliens come to Earth in response to receiving an "audio delight" that reached them as radio waves after traveling through space for decades. They capture a young boy and demand he produce more. There's a dance sequence to "Disco Inferno". Forever that song for me is hours spent in Ethan's garage painstakingly moving small clay figures. It was a lot of work, and it was also incredibly fun.
Outside of the movie, I did get a more contemporary music reference from Ethan. I only remember two songs from the album: "Wake Up" and "River of Deceit". Those are the first and third tracks, but I have no memory of the second. I got this as a copy from Ethan on cassette, so I think that means he actually saved me the trouble and just edited that out.
I don't know about you, but I got pretty much no sleep in high school. The staggered transportation schedule with the other school tiers (middle and elementary) results in high school students having to get up ridiculously early. School eats up a large section of your day, and then you've got the remainder to find out who you are as a person. By the end of all of this it's late and you're exhausted.
As mentioned above, I would go asleep to music. But waking up to music can be nice too. I took the suggestion in the title "Wake Up" and for awhile I used that song as a gentle wake up progression. It starts soft and builds into something harder to ignore, making it a good fit for the sleep deprived student.
As far as I can tell, this is the last album I ever had a copy of on cassette. Yes, there were some mix tapes after this, but this was the last time I remember getting a copy of a full album on cassette.
In hearing this song I experience two concrete sensory memories of friends singing along. At 1:40 I see Mary, at 3:13 I see Andy. I think these memories are from the same sitting, but I can't place where. But it's startling how clear the image is.