Undermind – Phish
An ideal way to listen to Phish, I've found, is by employing the shuffle feature in iTunes. Used to cull random tracks from within Phish's body of work, it gives a surprisingly focused overview of their career, skipping with randomized abandon between the band's various minor epochs – dense compositional mouse traps, atonal horn charts, simple folk songs, arty novelty numbers, arena rock blow-outs, and on and on and on – while retaining a sense of surprise. But, by dropping the band in playlists with other acts so that one hears them side-by-side with other acts, it also allows a nice perspective on the band considered within the broader rock scene. In many ways, Phish has created their own rules. What stands for, say, ambient in the Phish universe is very different than the kind of stuff one would find in the ambient section of a record store.
For Undermind, their 10th, newest, and final studio album, the band put themselves in the hands of producer Tchad Blake. And, for that, Blake performed a minor miracle: he created a record perfectly consistent with both Phish’s storied career and modern sonic values. The same way that Alun Owen’s script for A Hard Day’s Night perfectly captured (or perhaps contrived) the spontaneity of The Beatles’ personalities in an artificial setting, Blake’s arrangements translate Phish’s unique complementary style of improvisation into a rich production value. Especially under headphones, Undermind is a busy, busy album. Page McConnell’s organs and pianos overlap ("Army of One"), Trey Anastasio’s guitar bursts from the corners ("Maggie’s Revenge"), layers of quiet vocals whisper impossibly ("Scents and Subtle Sounds (intro)"). There is always some creative dialogue occurring. It certainly is alive.
As in one of Phish's jams, the voices – placed meticulously in Blake's binaural mix – interact naturally, each little bit reacting fluidly, as if in real-time, to something else. What's more, Blake knows when to turn on the weirdness, and when to leave things alone. The disc opening "Scents and Subtle Sounds (intro)" brims with gentle psychedelia and is mixed accordingly, elements swirling lusciously from speaker to speaker. When the disc arrives at the jam vehicle "A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing," Blake lays off the knobs and lets the band simply play (albeit mixed with crystalline separation). As in their performances, where jams follow intense worked-out pieces of music, the jam here is a release from the well-constructed tension of the album's intricate arrangements.
It is tastefully placed, too, in the album's considered arc. More than any Phish album (besides the band's crowning studio achievement, Billy Breathes) the songs flow together, with various efforts given to this effect. The album is book-ended, give or take, by "Scents and Subtle Sounds" (split tactfully at the spot where Anastasio seemingly forgot to write a transition between sections) and builds towards the considerably shimmering anti-climax of "Secret Smile" (forget about the silent trees, listen to the silent drums!). Likewise, the album is dotted with module tracks — minute-long sonic poems such as the noisy jam excerpt "Maggie’s Revenge," the Jon Fishman chant "Tomorrow’s Song," and the "Her Majesty"-style epilogue cutesiness of the a capella "Grind." Undermind is diverse – jumping from electronics ("Access Me") to Who-like bombastics ("Scents and Subtle Sounds") to string arrangements ("Secret Smile") to barbershop ("Grind") – but retains its sound throughout thanks to Blake’s production.
If there is a problem with Undermind, it is in its songwriting. Some of the ideas feel a little half-baked. "Two Versions of Me" (while a cool sentiment) never quite gels, and can’t seem to decide if it’s a ballad or just a mellow Neil Youngy rocker. "A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing" ain’t much of a song, though it is one hell of a texture, ready and waiting for the band to explore. Bassist Mike Gordon’s "Access Me" probably could have used another draft, stumbling on its clumsy title lyric. "Nothing" – originally released several years ago on Amfibian Tales, the solo debut by Anastasio’s songwriting partner, Tom Marshall – feels a bit lyrically clunky, too, though carries itself with a lovely melodic dignity. But, at the same time, if the songs were stronger, they might not have made for such a malleable starting point. In a way, they seem like the first Phish songs genuinely written for the studio.
And then there's "The Connection," the band's latest (seemingly aborted) attempt at a single, which has already lent itself to ample parody by Phishheads, due to its refreshingly child-like rhyme scheme. The song itself is genuinely pleasant, welding numerous classic rock melodies (including "Freebird") into a song worthy of Anastasio and Marshall's considerable repertoire.
On the other hand, there are some genuine winners. Page McConnell's "Army of One" is a triumphant arena anthem. His first lyrical contribution to Phish's catalogue is filled with wonderful imagery ("The arms of the Arctic begin to unfold"). And "Scents and Subtle Sounds" – at least, its second half – is dramatic in the classic Phish style. Ironically, it is also the one song on the album where the production could have been better, needing a bigger, more dynamic guitar tone (crunchy power chords!) and more separation between the keyboards and guitar. Structurally, though, it's brilliant, beginning at a peak, dissolving into an ethereal chorus, and then down to nothingness, before working its way back from whence it came. And "Grind," a leftover from the Billy Breathes sessions, is treated to a great arrangement, oddly shifting chords adding a humorous closure to the disc.
Is it a worthy final statement from Phish? Sure. Undermind is cool. There’s plenty to mull over, lyrically and musically, even without the specter of Phish’s demise hanging over it. Repeated listening definitely yields rewards. More, Undermind seems perfectly fit for listening in different situations – first thing in the morning, late at night, in a car with other people, alone under headphones – the music perpetually teetering on the edge of the transcendent. In that sense, the songs don’t matter much at all. As at a Phish show, they are subsumed into the whole of the experience. Does it sum up Phish’s interests over 20 years or provide some kind of satisfying conclusion to their career? Yes and no. It is not an elegant goodbye. But, more than most Phish albums, it does seem to exist in the moment, even more than the semi-spontaneously recorded Round Room.
And how does it work in shuffle play? Well, I'm not sure yet. Phish's catalogue is so big that it simply hasn't come up yet. I suspect it will stand in warm concert with their other material, reflecting on both itself and what it comes between. But, really, it's too early to tell that. Just as a note on the back cover of Let It Be promised a "new phase Beatles’ album" (and delivered it, too, by substituting Phil Spector for George Martin), a similar note would work on Undermind as well. It is the first Phish album that will exist almost entirely in retrospect, not as a statement of the band’s current direction (though now, briefly, in June of 2004, it is) or a progressive stepping-off point for future work. It is a future memory already, and – as David Byrne sang – memories can’t wait. Cool.