Monday, December 1, 2008

Primer: Phish Part 11- Undermind

Even though it wasn't the 'true' last Beatles album, it was hard to resist peering into Let It Be for hidden or overt messages. Paul wasn't dead, OK, but the band was...and why?? First there was the title, a kind of off-hand remark to fans: we're broken up, let it be. Then there was the cover, a series of four photographs showing the Beatles all facing left except for Paul McCartney, who looks straight out at the listener. Coincidence or no, it was McCartney who announced the breakup of the Beatles prior to the album's release. Finally, there's the difficult recording sessions for the album, which was shelved for nearly a year, and then released in a heavily edited and produced fashion. Oh, and the film documenting the sessions and the legendary rooftop concert, but it's not available on DVD yet...but maybe that's part of it, too?? Anyway, while I like Let It Be a lot, it's a mess of an album and it somehow set the tone for other breakup albums. Future fans of other bands would look through the lyrics and the album packages--the liner notes, the artwork, etc.--and compare the music to what had come earlier and try to find a logical pattern to it all.

So here we have Phish's "last" studio album, Undermind. Even though the band are in fact back together after almost five years apart, it's been a long and painful road for fans. While the music released by the solo projects of the four members of Phish has been anywhere from wretched to decent, as with the Beatles, none of it was ever as good as the original band. Though we don't know precisely what the Phish of 2009 will sound like yet, we have had plenty of time to catch up on the Phish of 1983-2000 and the Phish of 2003-2004.

Let's start with the obsessive-fan-picking-apart of Undermind. As with Let It Be, there's much for conspiracy theorists to latch unto. The title became a kind of awkward joke when, a month before the release of the album, Trey Anastasio announced the end of the band, thereby undermining any chance it had at a reasonable critical/fan reception. On principle, some would declare it garbage and heartbreaking; others would decree that it was their best ever and a fitting end. Then there's the album cover, so obviously styled after Let It Be you have to wonder if they knew it was going to be their last album. Notice that Mike Gordon faces to the left while the other members face right--though Trey sort of faces forward, too. Rumors say that Mike fought hardest for the band's survival. Lastly there's the various lyrics of the album which sound like veiled or direct communication about the band and the fans:
1) "The time has come for changes, do something or we will." ('Crowd Control')

2) "Now waters run free/no more fish in the sea" ('Two Versions Of Me')

3) "'Cause I need some protection/And I'm scared I could lose it/If I stare, you'll be gone" ('The Connection')

4) "I've got no answer but you've got no call/Just can't compete with the weight of it all" ('Army of One')

Intentional?? Probably not, but they're interesting coincidences, and that's the most we can ask of the world sometimes.

All of Undermind has a dark, introspective feel to it. It's a suffocating, cabin fever, late winter kind of album and I find it hard to listen to. Even the lighter tracks like 'The Connection', 'Access Me', and 'Grind' are tinted by darkness. I'm generally a fan of dark, introspective, and/or experimental music, especially for Phish, but just having those qualities doesn't make for brilliance. Undermind is overrated, to cut to the chase, and nowhere near as good as some of the reviews made it sound at the time. The one from Rolling Stone always sticks in my mind because of how off the mark it is. All you need to know is that they call 'The Connection' "the most commanding song of [Phish's] career." I don't hate this song, but it's the most weak and pandering pop song the band ever wrote (and a sign of things to come with Trey's often troubling and bland solo career, but that's another topic). When I think of "commanding" songs from Phish, it's things like 'Seven Below', 'You Enjoy Myself', 'Ghost', 'Down With Disease'...songs that immediately let you know you're listening to something unique and special, that sounds like nothing you've heard before but still makes sense. By contrast, 'The Connection', as an astute ex of mine once remarked, "kind of sounds like the Lemonheads."

This was not meant as a compliment.

By any account, 2004 was a bad year for Phish. They began the year with a strong New Year's Even run in Miami and then decided to play four shows in Vegas in April. Much speculation places this as the time when the band decided to break up. Trey's voice was absolutely shot for these three shows and rumors suggest he was partying too hard--or maybe he just had a cold but didn't want to call off the shows. Then came the announcement of the break-up and a summer tour that garnered mixed reviews though produced arguably some of the best improvisational playing of the band's history (the two shows played at SPAC in New York are incredible, while the Hampton show is a misunderstood and secretly great show with a bizarre setlist and unfortunate pacing). The band wound down the clock with a tour closing stop in Vermont with Coventry, a two day festival that is reviled by a good majority of fans both for its handling and the performances. The poor weather meant that a good deal of the fans had to be turned away from the grounds while many, many more, not wanting to miss Phish's last shows, walked miles in the mud to get there. As if to rub salt in the wound, the band were frequently sloppy and often flubbed the composed parts of songs. This is forgivable since it was their "last" show together, and they did get very emotional on stage, but one wishes they hadn't built up so much pressure on themselves. After all, their previous "last" concert, October 7, 2000, featured no talking or comments by the band, and was instead a finely played and thoroughly professional show. Phish's last show shouldn't have been marred by bad weather, poor planning, and weak, emotionally wrenching but musically weak playing.

I would normally try to disassociate all of this from discussing the music of Undermind, but I feel like it's central to the problems with the album. The songs aren't awful, but they aren't very good, either. Other than 'Scents & Subtle Sounds', the release lacks any ambition or experimentation whatsoever. Simplifying your sound is all well and good, but simplicity was never Phish's strong suit in terms of songwriting. Round Room is, more or less, just as simplistic song-wise, but the songs had character as well as improvisation to give them heft and interest. Undermind is Phish at their safest, and while it's admirable that they tried to make another pop album after the mixed reviews for Round Room, they forgot that nobody likes them for their pop music. Sorry, but it's true. Phish are good at playing this kind of classicist pop/rock and classic rock, especially in their choice of covers, but they aren't great at it. The most interesting things on Undermind are an excerpt of a studio jam, 'Maggie's Revenge' (a dark, snarling monster that is a slim glimpse of the impressive, electronic, psychedelic, and collective improvisational sound of Phish live in '03/'03) and 'Grind', which is a barbershop quartet number that dates back to the mid 90s. Meanwhile, the playing on the album is unimaginative and feeble. Never mind that there's no generous room for collective improvisation: the solos aren't very good to boot. It's sad when the best solo on a Phish album comes from a guest, although Ray Paczkowski's Fender Rhodes playing on the title track is a definite high point (and one can see why Trey plays with the man in his solo ventures).

I never thought I would call a Phish album forgettable but Undermind doesn't leave much of an impression. It's never stuck with me. The tracks have a--yes, I'm going to say it--generic and same-y quality that defies my expectations in a bad way. I don't think Rift or Hoist work as studio releases but at the very least their songs were unique and memorable even if the ultimate result was a mess. This album takes things in the opposite direction, leveling out everything to a flat plain that I find borderline bland. If it were a case of a band sounding too much like itself, it would be one thing. But to sound like a lot of other, much more boring music is troublesome. For a band who began their career somehow merging the psychedelic improvisation and love for American music of the Grateful Dead with the odd sense of humor and prog rock instrumental heroics of Frank Zappa, Phish journeyed way too close to easy listening and adult contemporary with Undermind. It's not a fan's position to demand anything from the band, but which would I rather have: Phish being who they are and playing to their strengths (Round Room) or trying to push themselves in the wrong direction and ending up weaker for it (Undermind)??

If this review has been overlong and bitter, it's only because I love Phish so much and find Undermind such a poor representation of the band and what's great about them. It occurred to me just now that it's my least favorite of all of their albums, live or otherwise; relativity may be in effect, but that low ranking should say more than I could with a review twice as long. This album might not be as embarrassingly awful as Trey's solo album, Shine, but whenever I listen to this CD in my car I pretty much only listen to the title track, 'Maggie's Revenge', and 'Access Me.'

There's a tendency among hardcore fans of any band to say things like "it's my least favorite song/album of their's but it's still better than 99% of what else is out there." I've always hated this mentality, because even though I wear the hat of a Phish cultist, there's simply too much other great music out there to be so single minded. You're better off with any other release of Phish's than this. No, it's not better than 99% of what else is out there, dear reader. But here's hoping for the next one...

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