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Scents and Subtle Sounds

Scents and Subtle Sounds has not been seen in 2 Phish shows.
It was last played: 2024-07-21.
It was played at 2.14% of live shows.
It has been performed live 43 time(s).

Music/Lyrics: Anastasio/Herman/Marshall

Vocals: Trey (lead), Mike, Page (backing)

Debut: 2003-07-07

Historian: Jeremy D. Goodwin (J_D_G), OrangeSox

In the cosmology of the Hebrew Scriptures, the defining act of divine Creation is a matter of division: between light and dark, earth and water, day and night. The later Christian tradition of Gnosticism would extend this to the theological concept of a divide between the flesh and the spirit, an idea that would be picked up, among others, by the New England Puritans. (See, for example, Anne Bradstreet’s poem “The Flesh and the Spirit.”)

In order to perform this task, the spirit of God appears ex nihilo (“from nothing”) as a “wind over the water." The earth is “formless and void.” In its noun form, a void is a “large empty space.” In the meta-dichotomy of the Creation story, the Void is the non-Creation – the Nothing before Something. Thus, to fill the void is to do good work, to create the potential for life.

The mysterious Genesis character Enoch is described as being taken from earth “to walk with God,” rather than die. The apocryphal Old Testament-era Book of Enoch tells his story in full. This work was lost to Western society until the last century, but it exerted a heavy influence on many New Testament authors. The book describes how Enoch is swept up by the winds (sometimes translated as a “chariot of wind”) and taken to the ends of the earth and the very foundations of the Heavens, to learn the mysteries of the universe. He sees the storehouses of the winds and rain and of the sun, moon, and stars.

So comes “Scents and Subtle Sounds,” with its promise of winds that “would lift you up into the sky above” to observe the “colors in the void.” 

On the surface, “Scents” is a clear admonition from Tom Marshall to seize the day, and includes memorable couplets such as: “If you would stop and notice that we number every day / But allow the many moments left uncounted slip away.” By living in the moment, the song suggests, we can experience a sublime transport up into the sky, where happy memories “arch across the Earth as spectral colors in the void,” forming a “rainbow record” as the happy times of our lives illuminate the void with their brilliant colors. This is not just a momentary pleasure: “if you do it right, you’ll find the moment never ends.”

Lest we forget, the rainbow is one of the earliest literary symbols, serving as the representation of God’s post-Flood covenant with humanity. The lyricist himself suggested that this song was about his desire to escape the drudgeries and disappointments in life that threaten to pin down our spirits. 

“I think a lot of times I sort of feel trapped inside for whatever reason. Inside yourself, inside a place, inside a situation. Maybe at certain times the songs could reflect that. In general I think just sometimes writing those things down makes me realize that I’m not really trapped, and that none of us really are,” he remarked in an interview. “Maybe because that’s my escape: writing it down. Just writing down the fact that I feel a certain way has given me the way out.”

Musically speaking, this is one of those Phish songs (like “Tweezer” and “Ghost”) that took almost no time in the rotation before asserting itself as a jam vehicle. Although its first several versions on summer tour 2003 were executed capably and quickly won the affections of fans (including a debut rendition in Phoenix on 7/7/03 which segued nicely out of an underrated “Wolfman’s Brother”), it was on the occasion of the song’s fifth performance that Phish really threw down the gauntlet. 

This show-opening “Scents” (on 7/23/03, the last of three nights at Deer Creek) jammed ferociously for over twenty minutes, and demonstrated that the band was willing to anchor a set with a brand new song in a way that hearkened back to the show-opening “Ghosts” of summer 1997.

Watch Scents and Subtle Sounds on YouTube Phish "Scents and Subtle Sounds" – 7/30/03, Camden, NJ. Video by Bowa4141.

These not-so subtle sounds at Deer Creek were no fluke: a week later, in Camden, NJ (7/30/03), a dark and experimental “Scents” sat heavily in the middle of a first set that was otherwise notable for its old school rarities. The next version, on the first night of IT, is remarkable not for a stand-alone jam, but for its spell-binding return to a short reprise of “Seven Below.”

This song was such a defining part of the summer ’03 tour that fans were heard to ask, “When will we get the ‘Scents’?” on the year-ending anniversary and New Year’s runs. Given its frequency of play (appearing in one third of the shows) during that summer, and its intensity of performance, it was a surprise to many when the song did not appear again in 2003 after IT.

Fans who had been holding out for a return of the multi-part composition style exhibited in Phish’s early work could find release in this piece. (See also: “Discern,” as well as Round Room tune “Walls of the Cave”) While it does not display the zigzag mathematical precision of a “Reba,” it includes at least four distinct sections: an enchanting introduction, an instrumental passage which many find distinctly reminiscent of The Who’s “Sparks,” a ballad-y chorus, and then a jam which reminds of “Harry Hood.”

The song re-emerged to appear on Undermind in two pieces. The first (named “Scents and Subtle Sounds (Intro)”) is actually the original demo recorded on the island by Trey and Tom for their "Men From Nantucket" sessions and serves as the first appearance of Tom Marshall’s voice on a Phish record. [See “Scents (Intro)” history for more information.] For a time, the Undermind bifurcation held, as all versions from 2004 until 2011 of "Scents" did not include the "Intro."

Trey and Tom on their rooftop balcony during "Men From Nantucket" sessions. Photo by Tom Marshall.


View of the ocean from Nantucket on the rooftop balcony. Photo by Tom Marshall.

"Scents" would make five appearances during the small handful of 2004 shows, including the 6/21/04 Letterman appearance, where the song was actually played twice from atop the marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater–once broadcast on the show, and again to open the abbreviated set they played for the assembled crowd on Broadway.

Watch Scents and Subtle Sounds on YouTube "Scents and Subtle Sounds" – 6/21/04, The Late Show with David Letterman, New York, NY. Video by kubu420.

When Phish returned to the stage in 2009, "Scents" was notably absent. It would make one appearance on the 2009 fall tour, opening the second set on the final night of a three show run at Madison Square Garden, before re-entering the void. A year and a half later, it emerged (with its intro section intact!) for a flawless, if by the book, performance on the second night of Super Ball IX. The “S” show at Dick’s later that tour provided a good occasion for another run-through, though the intro was again missing, as it was when the song segued out of an improvisational “Chalk Dust Torture” on 8/3/14 for a particularly truncated rendition. 

It wasn’t until the 8/12/15 show at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts that “Scents” truly regained the swagger it had back upon its first appearances in summer 2003. The slinky intro was back (though particularly mellow and squishy), and though Trey played like he hadn’t been fully briefed on the song’s transitions, a sloppiness of execution seemed to open the door for an expansive jam that added much to one of the most-loved second sets in years. 

Watch Scents and Subtle Sounds on YouTube Phish "Scents and Subtle Sounds" – 8/12/15, Philadelphia, PA. Video by Phish.

A very nice segue into an intro-less “Scents” at Magnaball (8/23) yielded a jam-less version (which dropped unexpectedly into “What’s The Use?”), compromising hopes that the song would continue on as a Type II showpiece once again. It would take another year to pass before the song returned with improvisational prowess, if still without its intro. Summer 2017 produced two back to back jam-charted versions, first on the second night of three at Northerly in Chicago at the beginning of the tour and again on Baker’s Dozen Lemon Night on the penultimate end of tour at MSG. Both versions were contenders in the .net/forum JOTY, a first since the 2003 bracket.

The intro would finally return in 2018, each version that year alternating with and without the intro. Another great version sans intro in 2019 at Charleston yielded more jam-chart worthy discussion, this one covering a variety of terrain and including a couple of teases before a nice soundscape to welcome the “No Quarter” that bubbled up from its end.

Watch Scents and Subtle Sounds on YouTube Phish “Scents and Subtle Sounds” - 12/6/19, North Charleston, SC. Video by Phish

Following the year off touring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the first version in 2021 at Atlantic City grew smoothly from a solid “Ghost,” but shortly after the lyrical component the band seemingly lost the song, and it more or less fell apart before 5 minutes passed. The band awkwardly found their way to “Chalkdust Torture” to try and salvage the odd turn of events, with Fish quipping “that’s some colors of the void for you” but the damage had been done.

With the disappointment of the previous night’s “Scents” still clearly on their mind, on night two after “The Landlady” stood without “PYITE” to open the show, for the first time in the song’s history the band eschewed what was track ten from Undermind altogether and instead played what is essentially the first live “Scents and Subtle Sounds (Intro)” ever, much like the first track from their 2004 album. 

Perhaps, it was an attempt to atone for the mismanagement of the song the night before, to make peace with the song before it left a stain, or to give those stats hungry nerdsfans a relatively huge bustout. Unfortunately for those in the latter camp, does not recognize it as such, simply considering it as “Scents” with intro only, because as Tom explained “it was always the intro to the song and never existed as standalone.” It would be an understatement to say the quick turn into “Moma Dance” was not expected.

Interestingly enough, the first “Intro” all to itself represented a turning point where the song has once again become its whole self, just one great piece, bringing “Scents and Subtle Sounds” full circle to its origins twenty years earlier. Unfortunately, there would be another abandoned version two years later in the Carolinas, this time during the 2nd set of 7/19/23 in Wilmington, NC. 

As winds nearly lifted fans into the sky above and rain clouds moved in, the storm turned increasingly electric while the band stumbled roughshod through the song’s intro headlong into the song’s second movement just in time for the band to apparently get the warning to stop or be stopped. 

The moment gave way to hilarious banter and a chaotic exit. Trey insisted to remember “for the permanent record” that he did not want to stop, while Fish reminded everyone that Taylor Swift didn’t stop. As he fumbled to help cover his kit, assorted elements of percussion were rattled and he lamented how wet his drums were getting, and either Page or Trey let loose a flurry of effected feedback to give the fans, now getting drenched and pretty much running for their lives, a bizarre soundtrack to their departure. Fortunately, no one was hurt, and, as fans are wont to do, by the next night the storm was just a great reason to double down.

Last significant update: 12/12/2023

Albums: Undermind


Scents and Subtle Sounds
© Who Is She? Music, Inc. (BMI)

If you would only start to live
One moment at a time
You would, I think, be startled
By the things that you would find

Like scents you never noticed
And many subtle sounds
Like colors in the landscape
And textures of the town

Then the winds would lift you up
Into the sky above
An you'd be treated to a view
Of everything you love

And if the moment passes
You should try it once again
For if you do it right
You'll find the moment never ends

If you would stop and notice that we number every day
But allow the many moments left uncounted slip away

You don't have to count them, just enjoy them one by one
Then things would take a different hue and sparkle in the sun
The winds would lift you up into the sky

The winds would lift you up into the sky above
Where you would see a trail of treasured memories you love
A rainbow record of the thoughts and moments you've enjoyed
Arcs behind the earth as spectral colors in the void

In the void
Scents and subtle sounds

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