Phish: The Story Of The Ghost (1998)

As with the Grateful Dead, there is a general consensus among fans that the band is best enjoyed live.  But also like the Grateful Dead, this sentiment tends to understate some of the band's surprisingly solid studio work.

Phish's earlier albums tended to be a little more playful, tapping into Trey Anastasio's more complex compositional leanings as well as the band's flirtations with Zappa-esque weirdness and prog ambition (tempered with some more traditional pop), while their more recent work is often more staid, falling into a more classic-rock-oriented bent without leaving their more experimental leanings entirely behind.  But right in the middle came a fantastic three-album run -- 1996's Billy Breathes, 1998's Story of the Ghost, and 2000's Farmhouse -- that for me hit the sweet spot, solid albums enjoyable even without any reference to the band's more expansive live performances and reinterpretations.

My personal favorite is Ghost (admittedly due in part to it being the one that first turned me on to the band).  It's stylistically diverse but not jarring, the band comfortably flitting about from Americana to light funk to psychedelia to prog, but consistently tuneful and engaging throughout. The songs are pithy and to the point, rarely outwearing their welcome, something that stands up well in the post-classic rock canon.

The opening title track is a spooky little groove, Trey's ambient feedback loop backing a mildly funky psychedelic number; the groove circles back later in the album with "The Moma Dance," a nice, shaggy retro 70s funk number with a fun vibe.  "Birds of a Feather" is a fast-paced jazzy number, while the like-minded "Limb By Limb" features a perky vocal call-and-response motif.  Indeed, the vocals are noteworthy throughout, with guitarist Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell, and bassist Mike Gordon (and occasionally drummer Jon Fishman) alternating vocal lines and harmonizing to often stunning result -- never more so than on the beautiful "Brian and Robert," a hushed ambient ballad (named for Brian Eno and Robert Fripp) with phenomenal harmonies.

Other standouts include the restrained but pop-oriented "Roggae," the pretty ballad "Frankie Says," the upbeat Americana of "Water in the Sky," and the gentle, comforting "Wading in the Velvet Sea."  A little of the old Phish weirdness slips through (the funky but askew "Meat" and somewhat grating "Fikus"); and "Guyute," a more extended prog-like narrative epic, is great but sounds a little out of place on the otherwise more focused and straightforward album.

I doubt that this album could successfully win over a diehard Phish skeptic, but for those who aren't familiar with the band or are put off by the whole jam band label, it's a solid piece of studio work (like Billy Breathes and Farmhouse) that deserves more attention among mainstream old-school rock fans.

Here's a terrific live "Roggae":
 Here's a live, unplugged "Brian and Robert":
 ...and a live "Limb By Limb":