The news about Phish splitting up - and this time it looks like it's for real - travelled all over the world via the Web - a big, sad surprise for all; titled Undermind, the new album - which had already been recorded and mixed - was to be released soon; summer dates had already been announced - a shorter, less tiring tour than those of the past, before the "extended hiatus" that had been intended to refresh the group and their forte: cultivating the unexpected (a feature that had made the group a precious and vital anachronism in the US scene). The hiatus (a period during which the members released individual projects) seemed to have worked: Round Room sounded more musically vital than its predecessor, Farmhouse. While their new concerts - many of which could be purchased in a "virtual" form - showed the group avoiding routine (always) and attaining peaks of pure transcendence (sometimes).

But this was not Trey Anastasio's (the guitarist and quasi-leader who composes about 90% of the group's repertory) opinion. During an announcement which appeared on the Web on 05.25.04 - an announcement whose sobriety didn't fully succeed in hiding the implied drama - Anastasio said: "We don't want to become caricatures of ourselves, or worse yet, a nostalgia act". Anastasio spoke along the same lines during an interview with Charlie Rose, on May 26, during the Charlie Rose Show, on PBS. We are not there yet, said Anastasio, but we are "getting there".

It's understandable that the brouhaha for this unanticipated decision (unanticipated even by the other members of the group) stole the scene, relegating Undermind in the background, save for a quick listen (no, the album doesn't sound like the tired work of a group about to break up) and a look at the lyrics, to see whether they revealed something about the incoming split. (Absolutely no trace of tension in those session scenes shown on Specimens Of Beauty, the 26-minute film directed by Danny Clinch which is included as a bonus DVD with the initial pressing of the album.)

Talking about music, it's easy to call Undermind a complex work of many merits, maybe not always apparent, nor always too easy to get. An album where not everything makes full sense, where some musical choices are maybe proof of some (if not creative, let's say diplomatic/organizational) empasse.

A few months ago, when I read that Tchad Blake was to produce - and later mix - the new album, I was a bit puzzled. Not that I thought Blake to be underqualified for the job - he has proved to be an ace in the field of "personalized sounds", working in many guises - sometimes with Mitchell Froom - on albums by Peter Gabriel, Los Lobos, Tom Waits, Sheryl Crow, Pearl Jam and Suzanne Vega, my favourite album being the one released in 1998 by Lisa Germano, titled Slide.

After repeated listenings, I can say my perplexity was justified: Blake submerged the group in a sea of echoes and reverbs, which don't always sound as the best weapons for a group that - though they have worked with many producers and engineers - has always favoured dry, almost Fripp-like sound climates (we can also forget the deep bass drum at the start of Seven Below, on Round Room). When things work (and this happens quite often: as an example listen to A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing, with its acid, Hendrix-like atmosphere - phasing, panning and vibrato) everything's ok. But sometimes Blake's predilection for contrast (among the songs, inside the songs) left me with the impression of something quite a bit disjointed. In one instance - Mike Gordon's Access Me, with its strange guitar and drum timbres, and a synth in a "demented organ" mode - the end result came dangerously close to a "novelty record". Maybe those who are used at listening (almost) exclusively to nowadays technical ways of working will find nothing strange here. Thanks to my "titanic titanium tweeters", I turned up considerably the volume control of my amplifier, so getting a more accurate representation of the stereo field.

Starting from its length (78'), Round Room demonstrated a new enthusiasm, a strong determination to break conventional rules. While Undermind (51'), though a perfectly good album in its own right, seems content with what's feasible here and now, renouncing (by necessity, not due to impure reasons: a distinction that's still very important to me) the tacit pact between "rock music" and those listeners who are not happy with same old, same old.

The album begins strangely enough, with three tracks - Strange And Subtle Sounds (Intro), Undermind and the contagious The Connection - which sound more like being off a Trey Anastasio solo album than performed by Phish (on the title-track the Fender Rhodes is played by Ray Paczkowsky, a member of Anastasio's group). Then, the lift-off: A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing is really, really excellent (at about 4' Anastasio plays a guitar solo that's quite reminiscent of the single-coil 80s-period Zappa); Army Of One is a beautiful pianistic ballad sung by Page McConnell (how strange! the sound is so Round Room); Crowd Control plays "in rock" a country melody; Scents And Subtle Sounds is an explosive, "British" thing (the Who?) with a memorable crescendo; a song that had already appeared on the triple CD Live Phish 07.15.03, the ballad Secret Smile here greatly benefits of a string section arranged by Maria Schneider. And this is where the album "really" ends - even if after that sad song (too sad, perhaps?), as a counterbalancing measure, the group have added the fun, "a cappella" Grind, a song that those in the know say to date back to the sessions for the album Billy Breathes.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2004 | June 20, 2004