90s score: 7/10
2020 score: 9.5/10
Thirty years ago, almost to the day, Vermont jam band Phish released Lawn Boy. This album had big shoes to fill, after their epic double album debut Junta (1984). Still, pulling material from their live shows as they always have, Phish managed to release something inarguably special on September 21st, 1990. Better still, many songs from Lawn Boy have remained at least as relevant as their predecessors in Phish’s live sets through the years.
If you’re not familiar with Phish, or with the jam band scene, there are a few things you must understand to fully appreciate Lawn Boy. First off, Phish’s studio albums, while excellent in their own right, are but a fraction of the band’s creative output; if you want to have a real taste of what they’re capable of, I suggest listening to a live show. Second, this band’s forte is improvisation – jamming! After all, they’re referred to as a jam band for a reason. One of the key things to listen for in their studio albums is music interplay between the four members – guitars, keys, bass and drums – that’s what they build on in their live sets.
The opening track “The Squirming Coil” is a great example of this; guitarist Trey Anastasio is sometimes seen as the “star” of Phish, yet they chose to open with a strong piano song, courtesy of Page McConnell. The live version of this particular song has brought tears to many an eye. It’s also interesting to hear the psychedelic masterpiece “Split Open and Melt” with heavily processed vocals and a full horn section! It’s definitely a highlight of listening to the studio version after having heard this song many times live. This and others on this album hold a special place in “phishtory” as compositional juggernauts that the band now uses regularly as jam vehicles. In the past 30 years, numerous versions of “Reba,” “Split Open and Melt,” “Bathtub Gin,” “Run Like an Antelope,” and even “Lawn Boy,” have evolved into proper jam vehicles with personalities that are sometimes quite different from what the band played in the studio for Lawn Boy!
Okay, okay, I can imagine what you’re thinking…
…and tell us about the studio record, already!
Well, the trouble is, I already have!
Here’s the bottom line: while Lawn Boy, like all of Phish’s albums, is a pleasant and fun listen, it’s no match for their live shows, so go listen to those. Better yet, bite the bullet and go see the band live when (if?) all the shitty, awful restrictions on live entertainment subside!
I’m serious: Lawn Boy earns itself a 9.5/10 from me not only because it’s a great record, but also because of its influence on musical culture in its own niche. Taken on its own, 1990 me would not have fully understood the appeal of such fiercely experimental and wacky music! I would have dismissed it as a well-produced, but ill-advised and disjointed effort. Boy, would I have been wrong! I’m sure glad I was introduced to this band live first, rather than discovering their records. I can only hope this review helps others discover and appreciate Phish without the opportunity of seeing them play.
A note for the curious: this record was originally released on September 21, 1990, on Absolute A Go Go/Rough Trade. It was subsequently re-released on June 30, 1992, after Phish signed to Elektra records.
Written by Henri Brillon
*Edited by Dominic Abate