This latest Phishing trip begins as you’d expect a Tchad Blake-produced record would— in a fog of creepy, bone rattling Waits-ian gothic rambling, pinging metallic hammers and loping, percussive grooves that claw their way through your forehead. What is this fantastically ghoulish noise? Will this, the band’s final record, be remembered as Phish’s Wild Years?
Better cast elsewhere. The promising opener quickly disintegrates, giving way to a tune that sums up everything that’s wrong with much of Phish’s latter-day work; the title track is lazy, nondescript jam funk that should’ve come with a warning: MAY CAUSE DROWSINESS, DO NOT OPERATE HEAVY MACHINERY WHILE LISTENING. Even the hyper-cool distorted Fender Rhodes and Blake’s subtly echoing sonic brushstrokes can’t salvage this song.
But just before the gravelly tug of the highway’s shoulder slides under my spinning tires, I’m jolted awake by a completely unexpected country/pop-rock jewel. Though lyrically deficient, “The Connection” is two minutes and 20 seconds of radio-ready, feel-good bliss. Some might have nightmare flashbacks of the band’s bunk bubble-gum ditty “Heavy Things” from 2000’s Farmhouse, but fear not; this new single actually works. It could be the type of improv-rock crossover hit “Runaround” was for Blues Traveler in the mid ’90s.
John Fishman keeps it rocking hard with his Gatling-Gun drum fills on “A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing,” a solid approximation of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter.” This is some of the band’s best jamming on the album, with guitarist/frontman Trey Anastasio summoning up the raw musical fury of earlier Phish tunes like “Wilson,” “Llama” and “Horn.” The low-end sludge-rock interlude “Maggie’s Revenge” hearkens back to the opening track’s hints of a darker album that never emerges, and its fuzzed-out noise experimentation is reminiscent of "Riker’s Mailbox" (from 1994’s Hoist), not in sound, but in brevity and function.
Much of the rest of Undermind, however, is a damn-near perfect metaphor for Phish’s performances in recent years—moments of greatness sandwiched between bouts of mostly uninspired mediocrity. “Nothing” and “Two Versions of Me” are tired hippy rock, “Crowd Control” comes far too close to the aforementioned “Heavy Things,” and the quasi-Sinatra sentimentality of “Secret Smile” will leave you screaming for the quirky multi-part Phish epics of yore. But in the accompanying DVD (a short making-of-the-album film by Danny Clinch), the band explains away this new direction (or lack thereof) as “smallification”: a stripping-down, a departure from complexity in order to discover the essence of the band members’ musical personalities and their newly written songs—being “naked as possible,” as Anastasio says in the documentary.
Unfortunately, the results are largely disappointing. The band is capable of so much more in regards to composition, and longtime lyricist Tom Marhsall has always faired best when he wasn’t striving for profundity (hell, some of his finest work doesn’t make much sense at all). Here, he tries too hard. Or perhaps the band just doesn’t use its music to undercut the lyrics the way it used to, injectecting the words with sonic dashes of irony (see “Sparkle” from 1993’s Rift).
“Scents and Subtle Sounds” offers some consolation toward album’s end, and its outro builds nicely into a cascading sheet of sound, though it never quite reaches the majestic peak it begs.
So after all these years, is Phish really going out like this? In all fairness, the band’s decision to hang it up came after the recording was complete. But for all of the strange, captivating, beautiful and absurd music Anastasio, Fishman, Bassist Mike Gordon and keyboardist Page McConnell have created over the years, they leave us with one last nugget of pure, unadulterated weirdness—the closing track, “Grind.”
Barbershop quartet numbers like “Carolina” and “Hello My Baby” have been Phish concert staples for years. Sometimes the band would even hush up the audience and perform these songs without any amplification. And the bizarre a capella “Grind” is Phish’s successful attempt at capturing this generally overlooked part of its live canon in the studio. And the lyrics are vintage Phish:
Grind, Grind, Grind,
Grind, Grind, Grind, Grind
I can bend in sixty-eight ways
I have lived for twelve thousand days
Twenty-eight teeth inside of my head
Grind three types of things
and I’m sad that they’re dead
Grind, Grind, Grind,
Grind, Grind, Grind, Grind
And there you have it. A redeeming end to a not-so-impressive farewell record, from one of the most talented, original and enduring bands of the last 20 years. For better or worse, it’s time to put those poles back in the closet.