Phish-ologists will be working overtime to decode "Undermind," the latest -- and supposedly, last -- studio album by the Vermont jam band. Phish is calling it quits after its summer tour, prompting fans to check this album for clues as to what might have happened.
The main observation, though, is that Phish is going out on a strong note -- contrary to assumptions that the new CD,
which hits stores today, might be a tired, anticlimactic flop. The irony is that Phish's previous studio disc, "Round Room," released when the group returned from hiatus two years ago, was the more tired album. But the new disc suggests that there's plenty of gas left in Phish's tank, which makes it even harder to accept the goodbye plans. The lyrics are suitably cosmic -- most of them penned by longtime Phish collaborator Tom Marshall -- but the music is far more consistent and punchy than on the group's last outing. The title track has a Beatlesque funk suggesting something from that band's "White Album," while "Army of One" has the Americana zing of The Band's "Northern Lights-Southern Cross" record.
Phish's classic-rock influences also seep through in the Byrdsy, dreamily psychedelic "The Connection" and "Nothing" (with a flowing intro reminiscent of the Grateful Dead's "Touch of Grey.") Phish plays it loose throughout the record -- and there's a lot of impressive sonic coloring by producer/engineer Tchad Blake, a rock eccentric who has worked with Tom Waits and Soul Coughing, among others, and is known for his use of low-fi distortion and vintage compressors.
Some lyrical clues, however, do suggest that Phish had an idea of what was coming, or at least that lyricist Marshall had some premonition. A driving new song, "Crowd Control," has singer Trey Anastasio noting: "The time has come for changes/Do something or I will." And "Nothing" paints this picture: "Nothing's ensconced/Nothing's entrenched . . . What I hoped might linger is swept off instead."
Anastasio is in fine voice, and the band is outstanding instrumentally. Anastasio has some crackling guitar solos, keyboardist Page McConnell shines on the ballad "Secret Smile," and drummer Jon Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon are staunch anchors in the rhythm section. McConnell also wrote the new "Army of One," while Gordon penned "Access Me" and Fishman created the chantlike "Tomorrow's Song."
When Anastasio recently wrote online that "We all love and respect Phish and the Phish audience far too much to stand by and allow it to drag on beyond the point of vibrancy and health," he was apparently not talking about this CD. Fortunately, "Undermind" stands up to Phish's best work. There's even a doo-wop song, "Grind," which is the perfect, surprise capper to the album. No way does this seem like the work of a band ready to hang it up.