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.