From the Spanish verb juntar, "to join," the title of Phish's first true studio album, although tapes from pre-Junta days exist. I've heard fans say that you should listen to this one first, to understand their roots, and I've heard other phans say that you should buy it, leave it on the shelf until you've heard A Picture of Nectar and been to a live show to understand what their original intent for the band was. Either way, it's an interesting time capsule. There aren't very many bands who have enjoyed Phish's longevity, and you'd never know that this was the same band that put together Farmhouse, Rift, and Hoist.

Disc 1

Junta's first disc demonstrates Phish's proclivity to jam--there are no songs under three minutes, and four of the eight songs break the nine-minute mark! The lyrics are vintage Phish, which is to say, juvenile but catchy. They're full of beautifully-written gibberish, jabberwocky, and half-sense that captures the playful mood of the songs perfectly--the best example of this is their song Golgi Apparatus, which is musically amazing... the lyrics were written by Trey Anastasio and his pal Tom Marshal in 8th grade. Having said my piece about the lyrics (don't listen to this Phish album if you're looking for a jam-band with deep literate references like Rush!!), I'll move on to the reason everyone listens to this gem: the music.

Fee and Esther are fairy tales set to music that follows the story: cheery, upbeat and Caribbean for Fee; toe-tapping and terrifying for Esther. You Enjoy Myself, Foam, David Bowie, and Dinner and a Movie are all long, intricate grooves with many different sections, arranged, rehearsed, and "bolted down" to an agreed-upon length for the studio, but usually jammed in concert. Each track has so many themes running throughout, so many minor moods, almost musical paragraphs, that it's very tough to identify a song by its title just from hearing part of one instrumental section. Most pieces dance around several time signatures and feature solos by more than one group member. And then there's The Divided Sky.

I've got a special place in my heart for it--not only does it come from Gamehendge, but it has only six words. It's a remarkable piece of songwriting, and at almost twelve minutes, never gets dull. There are at least 3 teaser endings, showing off Phish's concert technique of tension and release, where you expect the song to end with a bang and then... back to a mild jam that builds up while you're not paying attention... and then down again. The constant mastery of the song's pacing and intensity, along with their sense of togetherness is that ineffable "it" that you try to explain to your friends who don't listen to Phish, and who can't get past the lyrics. The Divided Sky is a canonical example of what Phish are all about. Oh, and it uses the word rhombus in the liner notes. Rhombus is such a cool word.

On shuffle, repeat all, or just listening to a single track--stoned or straightedge--this album is fine background music for a quiet cocktail party, a night of cards, chess, backgammon, noding... or for staring at the stereo and listening to every instant of all of the music, and hearing Phish play junta--together.

  1. Fee
  2. You Enjoy Myself
  3. Esther
  4. Golgi Apparatus
  5. Foam
  6. Dinner and a Movie
  7. The Divided Sky
  8. David Bowie

Disc 2

More of the same, but with wildly varying quality. There are moments of brilliance that equal and exceed their togetherness on Disc 1, but there are moments of sheer crapulence and immaturity where you have to wonder about quality control. My initial sense was that they tried to capture what a live show was like with some of the live cuts... but then took cuts from a bad performance.

I'll get this out of the way: the last half of Junta II, taken in context of what they're capable of, sucks. Union Federal is a 25 minute Oh Kee Pah Ceremony where Phish manage to put together a coherent instrumental, but get lost in the noodling after about 8 minutes, and don't come back down for the rest of the album. The tracks before it, and the long transition from atonal to groovy are great--in fact, they're the last Phish I listen to on this disc--but the wanderlust should've been edited out. That's why it's a studio album! Onward, though: I have never heard a live version of Sanity and Icculus that I liked less than the unprofessional, slapdash efforts on Junta. I'm sorry if those are your favorite tracks--the silliness and humor of hearing them once is great, but it kills me to hear a band that can play The Divided Sky stooping to Sanity. Icculus is about tension and release, and I recognize it--but they've done it better live so many times that this version shouldn't even count as an attempt.

Now, on to the good: Fluffhead & Fluff's Travels are not two songs; they're a single, massive counterweight to Union Federal and a reminder that this band has skill with their instruments and as a coherent musical entity. The gently strummed and picked acoustic guitars, the mellow piano work, and the crescendo to the fireworks at the end... all brilliantly done. Fluffhead is a wonderful pair of tunes, all 15 minutes of them.

Contact is the last track before Union Federal, and makes a great addition to any mix tape you're working on for a road trip, especially to lighten the mood. Kids will sing it and love the repetition and silly lyrics. Your significant other will sing it and give you that look during the lovey-dovey verse. You'll sing along because you want to, and because driving with Phish on the stereo is a good thing.

Junta's second disc is a disappointment, but there are treasures to be found in the first three tracks, and you get it free with the first disc, which is worth the $25 you'll pay for it.

  1. Fluffhead ->
  2. Fluff's Travels
  3. Contact
  4. Union Federal ->
  5. Sanity ->
  6. Icculus

On to their next album, Lawn Boy!
...or, their most recent album: Farmhouse.