I have always considered myself a casual Phish fan. Though I owned multiple CDs, including the six-disk box set Hampton Comes Alive, I only saw them play live once. I am not an authority on Phish history, such as the best live versions “Tweezer.” Still, I have always wondered on some level why their music inspires such derision from detractors. They’ve been a hardworking band for decades. Even though they’ve never scored a conventional hit, the group has a batch of solid original songs.
While listening to the new Phish tribute album Cluster Flies, I had an epiphany about why they have such a tough time attracting outside listeners. The band and its collaborators are great at writing catchy, interesting and thought-provoking songs. They’re just not that good at coming up with song titles. This may also explain why despite decades of listening, I have trouble keeping their song names straight in my head.
Cluster Flies was released by the website JamBase as a fundraiser for the site during the pandemic. It contains covers of all the tracks from Phish’s 2000 album Farmhouse, several songs from a bonus edition, and a few deeper cuts. Seven of the 12 songs from Farmhouse have one-word titles, with names like “Twist,” “Bug,” “Dirt,” “Piper,” “Sleep.” One can find multiple examples throughout Phish’s catalog: “Waste,” “Fee,” or “Free,” to name but a few. With names like these, the band undersells its greatest asset, making their music inaccessible for the uninitiated. Alas, I’m sure that’s just the way Phish fans like it. Fortunately, the songs, both on Farmhouse and Cluster Flies, show far more creativity than their titles.
The various artists on Cluster Flies push the tracks into divergent musical directions, including folk, blues, bluegrass, country, jazz, world beat and hard rock. The album also includes some extensive jams. The covers highlight Phish’s ability to craft timeless songs that work in multiple contexts.
The album opens with a straightforward cover of the acoustic instrumental song “The Inlaw Josie Wales” (okay, that’s a cool title) by William Tyler. Up next is a short, folk-pop take on “Farmhouse” by Sylvan Esso. The duo drops the guitar fireworks of the original, which shortens the track considerably. Amelia Meath sings it as a quiet folk tune, highlighted by the dreamy call and response of “This is a farmhouse.” The album then shifts into Jennifer Hartswick’s take on “Dirt.” The cover plays as if it was meant to be a continuation of Sylvan Esso’s “Farmhouse” at the beginning, but then evolves into more traditional blue rock towards the end.
Some of the artists take the songs in a more experimental route. A group led by White Denim frontman James Petralli transforms Phish’s syncopated ‘90s-style rock track “Gotta Jibboo” into a slow-grooving rocksteady tune. The Boston-based musical collective known as Club d’Elf, best known for creating a hybrid sound of funk, jazz, world music and electronica, reworks “Sand” into fusion jazz territory. They blend Middle Eastern rhythms, spoken-word style lyrics along with ambient guitars and keyboards reminiscent of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew sessions.
“Sleep” is an oddity in the Phish catalog in that it has a mere two-minute running time. It contains neither a verse nor a chorus. It’s more like a poem set to music. Singer/songwriter Amy Helm more than doubles the song length and performs it as a slow, emotional, country/Americana tune. She bookends the track by opening and closing with a series of “oohs” giving it the feeling of a more complete work than the original.
Though the album clocks in at nearly two hours, I found it to be a steady, well-paced listen. Even the multiple extended Phish-style jam tracks do not weigh down the album. To put it in monosyllabic Phish song title terms, Cluster Flies is simply a “Joy” and a solid tribute to a band who hasn’t stopped writing their story.
Cluster Flies track listing:
- William Tyler – The Inlaw Josie Wales
- Sylvan Esso – Farmhouse
- Jennifer Hartswick – Dirt
- Tim Palmieri, Reid Genauer, Amar Sastry, Eric DiBerardino, Ben Atkind, and Ryan Dempsey – Vultures
- Daniel Donato – Back on the Train
- Reed Mathis – Bye Bye Foot
- Vetiver – Driver
- James Petralli, Sam Cohen, Eric Slick, Mike St. Clair, and Zero Percent APR – Gotta Jibboo
- Chris Forsyth – Piper
- Club d’Elf – Sand
- Lindsay Lou – Mountains In The Mist
- Sadler Vaden – Heavy Things
- Amy Helm – Sleep
- Neal Francis – Dogs Stole Things
- Brendan Bayliss – Twist
- Strand of Oaks – Bug
- Ryley Walker – First Tube
Click here to listen to more Phish covers.