Written on December 30, 2011
The tightness of instrumentation, technical proficiency, and synchronicity of playing on Junta is astounding.
Let’s put the lyrics aside for a moment (which can be a point of criticism for Phish) and focus on just the instrumentation. Instrumentally, the songs on Junta all have the same feel, but the playing has so many twists and turns and is so complex and tight, it never becomes monotonous. It’s difficult to describe the sound on the record because it is very unique, but to me– every song has an extremely fluid and swirly melody that almost makes the songs sound like liquid music. Two great examples of this instrumental tone are “You Enjoy Myself” and “Golgi Apparatus.”
It is hard to dispute the great idiosyncratic instrumentation on Junta, but it is only half the story. The other half is the lyrics.
In terms of lyrics with Phish, you need to be ready for some quirky lyrics. Personally, I love the lyrics. In many cases they add some needed comic relief, and they are important because they balance out the seriousness of the music. On Junta, you can break down the lyrical content of the songs into three groups: narrative lyrics, limited lyrics, and odd/humorous lyrics.
Narrative Lyrics: “Fee” and “Ester” are narratives. Both songs tell stories through their lyrics. “Ester” is the crown jewel of all Phish’s narratives, and it is one of my favorite tracks on the album. The story might seem nonsensical on the surface, but if you examine the lyrics metaphorically, the plot is most likely a warning against the ups, downs, and dangers of drug use: Ester’s puppet acts as the metaphorical drug in the story. (Click here to listen to Esther)
Limited Lyrics: The songs “You Enjoy Myself,” “The Divided Sky,” and “David Bowie” use the limited lyrical approach. These songs are really instrumentals, with just a few added lyrics. In “You Enjoy Myself,” the only lyrics are “Boy/ Man/ God/ Shit/ wash Uffizi drive me to Firenze.” “You Enjoy Myself” is also one of Phish’s most beloved songs. It has been played at approximately 40% of all of their live shows, and it sometimes stretches well over 20-minutes. In “The Divided Sky” the only lyrics are “Ahhh!/ Divided sky, the wind blows high,” and in “David Bowie,” the only lyrics are “David Bowie/ UB40.” (Click here to listen to David Bowie)
Odd/ Humorous Lyrics: The songs in this group are “Golgi Apparatus,” “Foam,” Dinner and a Movie,” “Fluffhead/ Fluff’s Travels,” and “Contact”. These are the most criticized lyrics of the album, but I don’t mind them because they are sung over extremely tight and serious music, and they help lighten the tone. If the lyrics on Junta were as serious as the music, the album would come across as overly pretentious. Therefore, I think the lighthearted lyrics of these songs are critical. (Click here to listen to Foam)
On another subject, I want to make the distinction that Junta has much more to do with progressive rock than jam band rock. Phish is without question a jam band on stage because they incorporate loads of jamming and improvisation into their sets, but the studio tracks on Junta are scripted out note for note. All the songs can be considered progressive rock, and “The Divided Sky” is the best example of this. You can even hear a little of Gentle Giant’s influence at the 1:17 mark (click here to listen to The Divided Sky).
Lastly, I’ll briefly mention the live bonus tracks at the end of the second Disc. “Union Federal” is a 25-minute improvisational, experimental jam session. It has never been played live at a Phish show, but it is tagged live on Junta because it was recorded live in the studio as a jam session. I certainly wouldn’t listen to it on regular basis, but I actually enjoy it when it’s on because it gives you a glimpse into Phish’s song writing process, and you can hear bits and pieces of music that would later become developed songs. The other two live tracks (“Sanity” and “Icculus”) were recorded live in concert at Nectar’s in Burlington, Vermont on July 25, 1988, and although they are not fantastic recordings, it’s a treat to hear them as early live numbers. Neither song ever ended up being recorded for a studio album, but both songs have stayed in Phish’s live set.
Overall, Junta is a fantastic record defined by the band’s unique musical texture and sound, which as mentioned is an “an extremely fluid and swirly melody that almost makes the songs sound like liquid music.” The record is simply inimitable and purely remarkable.
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