The Severing of Scents and Subtle Sounds

Phish played 21 shows during the summer of 2003. I went to 20 of them.

At the first show, which was a blisteringly hot July day in Phoenix, AZ, Phish debuted a few new songs. In the second set, a creepy sounding, carnival-esque tune emerged out of the space that ended “Wolfman’s Brother.” It crept into the dry, warm night, and after a short couple of verses, exploded into a loud celebration of strummed power chords and intense drumming that sounded like something from a Who album, and then settled into a mellow jam section that reminded me of “Harry Hood” but without the “seeing-God” apotheosis ending. I remember thinking with my friend “this is a cool song, I hope we’ll see it develop over the summer.” Indeed we did. This song was “Scents and Subtle Sounds,” by far the most ambitious, and probably most beloved, new song of Summer 2003.

Early versions of the song showed promise, clocking in at around 11-12 minutes, about 5-6 minutes of composed song and then the rest jam. “Scents,” as it became abbreviated, clearly had two main formal sections, an introductory part which was creepy, minor key, eerie, and then a celebratory major key section that led into the simple, subdued 2-chord major jam. Here’s the basic song structure, from the third version of that summer, at the Gorge, 7/13/03:

Phish wasn’t content to leave it as a simple, albeit long, tune. The last three versions from that summer saw “Scents” go far beyond its normal structural bounds, some serious type II jams that stretched the song out to 20 minutes or more, representing some of the best improvisation of the summer. There was a 21 minute version from Deer Creek, 7/23/03, and an even more monstrous 30 minute version showed up in the first(!) set of 7/30/03. Finally, “Scents” provided the centerpiece of the third set of the IT festival’s first night, proving that the song was truly one of the improvisational focal points of the summer as it weaved in and out of the other huge new jam vehicle of that tour, “Seven Below.” Scroll ahead to about the 10 minute mark on this version from 7/23/03 as it begins to veer into the unknown:

I was so excited to see what would happen when this song went indoors, subject to the full range of Kuroda’s lights and the darker feeling that fall tour often brings. But in the four shows from 2003 that followed summer tour, it never once appeared on a setlist, nor did it rear its head during the fatefully catastrophic Vegas ’04 run. In the meantime, Phish’s latest, and at the time we thought last, album Undermind came out, where “Scents” was oddly separated into two tracks, one comprising the minor intro and the other the rest of the song. An odd choice, I thought, but it’s a Phish album, and albums have traditionally had little to do with the live show. We learned from the liner notes that the “Intro” part had actually been written and recorded separately from the rest of the album. There were precedents for this – a number of very cool album “effects” had appeared on both Billy Breathes and Story of the Ghost that never made their way into the live show.

Not until the third night of Phish’s “final” tour (or so we thought back then), Summer 2004, did “Scents” appear live, as it is on the album, having jettisoned its introduction. “WHAT?? What happened to the intro? That was the best part of the song” I thought at 6/19/04 when “Scents” finally re-emerged. Two nights later, Phish played the truncated “Scents” as their “farewell” song on the Late Show with David Letterman, as though it were their single. The epic multi-part composition had been reduced to a simpler pop song, ending with a basic two-chord jam.

Throughout the rest of the summer, “Scents” only appeared as the album version without the intro, as it was now clear that Phish thought of these as two separate songs. When Phish returned in 2009, “Scents” was absent from the reunion shows and never appeared all summer. Not until the penultimate night of their fall tour 2009, at Madison Sq. Garden, did “Scents” finally come back. Yet it was the album version again, without its intro, and the song has lay dormant throughout 2010.

Why did “Scents and Subtle Sounds” get severed in two? I can’t answer that, only Trey can. But here’s why it should be put back together.

In almost every musical aspect, the two parts of the song contextualize each other, and the end result is richer and musically more exciting when the intro precedes “Scents” (heretofore I’ll just call it “the song”) proper. Regarding musical affect or mood, the intro and the song are an excellent study in contrasts. The dark, slow, eerie intro sounds like a Halloween soundtrack, creepy and minor-keyed, which then erupts with joy and exaltation in the song. Without the darkness of the intro, the song sounds trite, poppy, and sappy. In a way, the peppiness of the song comes off as saccharine without the melancholy of the intro to balance it out, to provide a darkness out of which the song can then burst forth.

Lyrically, “Scents” is about slowing down, and taking a moment to realize all the beauty in your world. Those “Scents and Subtle Sounds” in the lyrics are things “you would, I think, be startled by, the things that you would find.” In becoming cognizant of them, “you’d be treated to a view of everything you love.” Those lyrics all come from the intro, which declares that “if you do it right, you’ll find, the moment never ends.” It’s saying that you can prolong the joy in your life by slowing down to realize all the things you have and love. Those things can be read in many ways – your material possessions, your family, your work, etc. For Trey and Tom, who wrote the song together, it’s probably their kids. The song’s lyrics reprise the same basic ideas: “If you would stop and notice that we number every day / But allow the many moments left uncounted slip away.” Again, if you can “enjoy them one by one,” then “you would see a trail of treasure, memories you love.” So it seems that the lyrics of the two sections are a bit redundant. But I think that they represent the two sides of the concept. There’s the problem of life, that we don’t pay enough attention to the little things that really matter because we are too caught up in trivialities, and there’s the solution, to stop, appreciate what you have, and be happy. The song narrates the two sides of that dilemma. The intro is the life unfulfilled. It is the drudgery of day-to-day living without stopping to notice the “scents you never noticed and many subtle sounds.” The song is then the wonderfully colorful world that opens when you do realize all those little things. As such, the song is sprinkled with impressionistic representations of that full, “colorful” life, since those “scents and subtle sounds” become “colors in the void.” The void is the intro. Without it, the colors are just day-glo overkill, they need the void to have meaning.

Musically, “Scents” isn’t all that interesting. Trey’s strumming around the D chord that opens the song really does sound like the Who, and in that YouTube clip above Mike does his best John Entwistle impersonation. Distorted strumming during the lyrics section (over just the tonic D and the dominant A) lead to an ethereal arpeggiation of chords in the key of D major. The jam then sets up a I-IV subdominant oscillation, not unlike “Harry Hood” which goes I-V-IV. The V-I motion is replaced by IV-I as the main structural progression, set up by the long pedal on G over the word “void” that then resolves down to D for the beginning of the jam. The jam follows the model of “Slave” or “Hood,” starting ever-so-quietly and building, but not to the same exultant peak as either of those two songs.

When preceded by the intro, the song takes on a new harmonic meaning. The intro is in the key of D# minor. I dare you to find another pop/rock song in that key (fine, there probably are some, but it’s pretty far out there). Everything about the intro creates this sense of eerieness that contrasts with the bombastic strumming/drumming/hyperactive bass line of the song. Page plays a gorgeous D# “ether bell,” the only Phish song which uses that particular keyboard sound. Mike and Trey both play a creepy descending line, full of chromaticism and arpeggiating the i-VI-V7 progression of the intro. There is one deviation from that D#m-B-A#7 progression, on the line “then the wind would lift you up…” the song goes to the minor subdominant as though it were a bridge or B section: iv-III-bV-V. That half-step move from bV-V (A to A#) highlights both the semitone and the tritone relationship between A and D#m. Which means that the intro is not only cast in a creepy minor key (made all the more creepy by those bells from Page), but that it is colored heavily by the semitone and tritone, dissonances which accentuate the overall affect. Finally, Fish’s drumming follows the guitar line, all wood block, tom, rims, and some light, bell-like cymbals and “anvil” hits.

That semitone relationship, which is all over the intro, then gets “composed out” as the relationship between the intro and the song. The intro ends by transposing up arpeggios from B to C# to D to E. Then the D major that opens the song erupts after the E. D# minor and D major; that relationship makes the D major feel so much more triumphant. Harmonically, the intro contextualizes the song, and gives that long D-G jam a raison d’etre, it is the happy realization of the major subdominant progression that was denied in the intro’s minor dominant progression.

In texture, harmony, melody, mood and affect, the intro and the song are contrasts. Their lyrical unity, speaking of the two sides of life, is enhanced by these contrasts. The song has meaning when preceded by its intro. Maybe this is why Phish hasn’t played “Scents” recently, because they feel the song has lost some of its power. Put that intro back onto it, and all the powerful meanings will be restored. One of my biggest hopes for this fall tour is that we’ll see the resurrection of the original, complete “Scents and Subtle Sounds.” Six shows into the tour, and it hasn’t happened yet. Here’s hoping the fall chill and Halloween spirit inspires them to take us into the darkness of the intro, out of which the rest of the song’s light can then shine.


(UPDATE 2/13/13): There were two moments at SuperBall IX when I totally lost it. One was when they played Forbin’s in the afternoon set of Day 3, a song that I had never heard until then, and like most phans, one of my favorites. The other was at the end of set 2 on Day 2, when Trey slowly began playing the intro to Scents and Subtle Sounds! I guarantee I was the happiest person at SuperBall during that minute and a half. I had been dismayed that, through all of the 2010 Fall tour and the first leg of Summer 2011, there had been no colors in the void, with or without intro. And then it came back complete. There were some weird differences though: Page seemed to not have the “ether bell” sound readily available, which really took away from the intro, and it didn’t have quite the eeriness of all those ’03 versions, a little sloppy and perhaps under-rehearsed. Yet I felt vindicated: Trey had finally realized what I had long been advocating – that Scents needs to have its intro.

Alas, my joy was fleeting. I felt like Scents had to make an appearance during set 2 of the “S” show, 9/2/11. Hell, they busted out “Sparks”! Surely they would find space for Scents, a far more common tune even given its relative rarity in 3.0 Phish. But when it did appear midway through set 2, there it was again, severed, incomplete, and for me at least, unfulfilling. The song, with or without intro, has lay dormant since that Summer 2011, even when it seemed that Phish was playing everything but the kitchen sink in 2012 setlists (“Skin it Back,” “FYF,” hell even “Happiness is a Warm Gun” and “Head Held High”). Like any good Red Sox fan, I repeat my mantra: there’s always next year.


~ by Jake on October 17, 2010.

3 Responses to “The Severing of Scents and Subtle Sounds”

  1. did you chart out this song or something? nice! I agree, saw it in 03 at Deer Creek and the tune needs the intro.

  2. I figured out the chord progressions but didn’t “chart” out the song to be played or anything. It was more of a harmonic analysis using my ear, aided by guitar tabs I found on the web. But I did it entirely for analytical, not performance, purposes.

    Glad you agree Joe – it would really make for a great mid-first set fall tour jam. Hoping we get it in Amherst next weekend!

  3. you can make that two people equally as happy to have been there for the SBIX performance. i actually still listen to that version frequently… even though it isn’t the most adventurous or accomplished version, the fact that it is a complete version is essential with other factors taboot. the version is pretty well executed, for one, but what really did it for me was how delicate and intimate the performance was when they dropped off into “the void” (i also contend that is quite an accomplishment for a festival but also speaks to special magic that SuperBall had). the SBIX version comes closest to fulfilling Scents’ potential as a Harry Hood-esque composition. there is still room “at the top”, so to speak, for Trey to lead the band and the song to a higher plane of ecstasy, but the flow at SBIX just seemed to have that effortless euphoria that the best Hoods have (btw by contrast i’ve always sensed that the Slave jams are more steeped in catharsis, but finding a crossroads of “pleasure and pain”, to put most basically).

    how come phish hasn’t thought about treating the two parts of Scents similarly – although i guess in an inverted way? – as they do Tweezer and Tweezer Reprise?

    i don’t know what must’ve happened in 2003-2004 that caused such a reconsideration of the two parts of Scents belonging to each other and needing each other… but maybe they just need to tell a bigger story? phish could certainly spin some tales with a

    Scents Intro -> Light -> Scents -> ???…

    no? and that’s just the simplest setlist equation i could conceive. what about a more humorous

    Scents Intro -> Roses -> Scents…?

    btw you have a great blog going here, thanks 🙂

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