Sometimes you can’t help being a wimp. As someone who spent too many teenage hours analyzing Jackson Browne lyrics and pondering personnel changes in Poco, I know whereof I speak. So do Phish. On ”Theme From the Bottom,” one of many musical placebos on Billy Breathes, guitarist and main songwriter Trey Anastasio compares feelings of unrequited love to those of being a starving fish: ”I live upon morsels you happen to drop….If nothing comes down, then I’m forced to swim up.” His idea of a serenade is ”Waste,” whose refrain — ”Come waste your time with me” — is sung with an earnest, aw-shucks shrug. Who needs the Bread reunion when we have Phish?
Comparisons to ’70s wussies such as Bread (or Seals & Crofts, or America) aren’t so far-fetched on Billy Breathes. Ditching the overproduction that cluttered previous records (and taming their jam-band excesses), rock’s largest-living cult band have never sounded more pastoral. Pianos and guitars glisten like sun-drenched streams, and each song averages only one solo instead of the usual two or four. Now and then, as on the single ”Free,” they toss in some power chords, albeit mild-mannered ones. But the overall mood is so bucolic that the intensely pretty title song always makes me want to grab a joint and a novel and head for a park — until I remember that I don’t do those things anymore.
It’s more commonplace, of course, to compare Phish to the Grateful Dead. ”Theme From the Bottom” even has the loping licks and warm, fraternal harmonies of American Beauty. (The narrator of ”Taste,” who doesn’t want to be tied down to no darn woman and wants only ”a taste for free,” recalls the most solipsistic, chauvinistic side of the Dead.) Yet Phish are not the songwriters Garcia, Weir, and company were. They may no longer noodle on their instruments, but they seem like noodle-heads with their pens: ”Don’t want to be a farmer, working in the sun/Don’t want to be an outlaw, always on the run,” they warble in ”Waste.”
You can’t blame fans for eating up such escapism, as previous generations did with their own wimp rockers. For Xers whose exposure to idyllic pop is limited to an unplugged performance by a Seattle band, Billy Breathes represents an inviting new world — one where you can frolic in a field and sing along with ”So toss away stuff you don’t need in the end/But keep what’s important, and know who’s your friend.” Me, I don’t listen to my old Poco records anymore. And even Phishheads may come to find that whimsical snippets like ”Oh, to be Prince Caspian/Afloat upon the waves” won’t teach you much about life. Billy Breathes is a nice place to visit, but it’s hard to imagine living there too long. B-