Broad commercial success has managed to elude Phish's official releases throughout its 17-year career. Although it has issued 12 albums, including a live six-disc boxed set, Phish has sold a total of only 4.5 million albums, and only 1995's double disc, A Live One, has gone platinum. The band's latest, Farmhouse, is probably not destined to be its first platinum studio album, but it is one of Phish's finest works to date, its After the Gold-rush, an album of warmth and maturity that is both playful and serious in its musicianship.
It's significantly more accurate to say that Farmhouse is the work of guitarist and vocalist Trey Anastasio, with Phish as his backing band and occasional collaborator. Anastasio's influence on the disc is immeasurable; he wrote many of the cuts here specifically for his solo tour in the spring of 1999, shares producing credits with Bryce Goggin (Pavement), and used his 19th-century studio/barn -- the Farmhouse -- to record the album. The consistency and direction that Anastasio brings to Farmhouse encompass a wider range of musical ideas than the psychedelic funk of Phish's previous studio release, 1998's The Story of the Ghost. While the band still gets its swerve on in "Sand" and "First Tube," Farmhouse's most evocative moments aren't these transmissions from the mothership. The subtle brilliance lies in delicate acoustic tapestries such as "Sleep" and "The Inlaw Josie Wales," as well as the locomotive drive of "Back on the Train" and the title track's fusion of alt-country balladeering with a classic Bob Marley chord progression.
Farmhouse also benefits from a lyrical maturity that mirrors its musical complexity. Thematically, the disc revolves around a lost and alienated love, encompassing emotions that range from angry ("Heavy Things") to resigned ("Bug"), with a lyrical weight that finally silences one of the most common -- and legitimate -- criticisms leveled at the band. Which is not to say that Phish doesn't still like simple and silly, as the jammy "Gotta Jiboo" shows. With its last few studio releases, Phish has targeted neither fans looking for the synesthetic overload of its legendary live performances nor the undiscerning flavor-of-the-moment-loving mainstream audience. As Farmhouse demonstrates once again, this is a band that is continuing, quite successfully, to do things its own damn way.