Conventional wisdom says that Phish has never been focused on studio albums. Conventional wisdom can be and, in this case is, wrong. There are several cracking good Phish records, including 1994’s Hoist and 2009’s Joy. You can add Big Boat to that list of quality albums, even if it doesn’t announce the arrival of the group’s next great era. The Vermont quartet seems in good spirits, at least.

The record has an odd beginning with the Who-ish stomp “Friends,” which finds drummer Jon Fishman steering the ship. Trey Anastasio’s voice has become such a defining feature that its absence at the top of the shindig seems impossible to imagine. When it’s not playing at the classic era, it’s meandering through the barren fields of ‘90s joke rock. Bearable but not Phish’s finest hour. Anastasio has been making fine solo records of late, most of them outshining his appearances with his band. His wise worldview now seems at odds with the absurdist humor that his longtime pals Page McConnell and Mike Gordon get up to via “Things People Do” and “Waking Up Dead.”

Yes, Anastasio’s “Running Out of Time” is good, maybe one of the best things he’s ever written, but the country-tinged leanings it offers seem out of tune with the rest. That’s saying something given Phish’s eclectic tendencies. Other times, he no longer seems as much a focal point of the band as he once was, and he doesn’t quite let loose on the guitar the way we know he can. A notable exception is “Miss You,” where his bends and fluid runs threaten to melt your heart and then your speakers. He never sounds like he’s phoning it in, he just seems restrained.

In fact, there’s a politeness to this whole Bob Ezrin-twiddled set. The guys are cautious about stepping on each other’s toes to the point of not bothering to throw their foot into the circle at times. It’s frustrating to hear a group that plays so damn well together, maybe better than any group since the Mothers of Invention, sound so disconnected from each other.

Bands do, of course, mature. Marriages come and go, children get older and move off to college; sobriety becomes a stabilizing factor the way that partying once was; charting unknown waters becomes an increasingly less interesting endeavor when everyone can get the take and make it home for dinner by five. Yeah, there’s passion here, but passion for a job well done rather than passion for breaking new ground. This is by no means a write-off of Phish or a claim that Big Boat is anything less than a good album—it’s just not the album you know the quartet could make if it threw caution to the wind. It’s hard to begrudge Phish for the success that has come its way or for finding a comfort zone, but one can’t help but sorely miss the bright-burning fires of a group that could inspire gaping mouths as well as idiot grins.

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