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The end of an era
Phish call it quits, but Trey Anastasio keeps cooking

It’s impossible to listen to Phish’s 12th studio album, Undermind (Elektra), without thinking of the statement that the band’s guitarist and de facto leader, Trey Anastasio, posted on www.phish.com on May 25. "Last Friday night, I got together with [bassist] Mike [Gordon], [keyboardist] Page [McConnell], and Fish [drummer Jon Fishman] to talk openly about the strong feelings I’ve been having that Phish has run its course and that we should end it now while it’s still on a high note. Once we started talking, it quickly became apparent that the other guys’ feelings, while not all the same as mine, were similar in many ways — most importantly, 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. We don’t want to become caricatures of ourselves, or worse yet, a nostalgia act. By the end of the meeting, we realized that after almost 21 years together, we were faced with the opportunity to graciously step away in unison, as a group, united in our friendship and our feelings of gratitude."

Now hold on a minute: is this New England rock institution, this living definition of the modern jam band, really going away for good? After all, they kinda broke up once before, in October 2000, the start of a two-year period that the group officially refer to as "the hiatus." Anastasio seems to answer that question later in his statement: "For the sake of clarity, I should say that this is not like the hiatus, which was our last attempt to revitalize ourselves. We’re done."

A cynic might say that this is nothing more than a great way to promote a new album and a brief summer tour that includes two dates, August 10 and 11, at the Tweeter Center in Mansfield, and a final two-day blowout (August 14 and 15) on home turf in Coventry, Vermont. But that view doesn’t square with the facts. A band who have played to crowds topping the 100,000 mark don’t need shallow publicity stunts to sell tickets. And though you can accuse Phish of a lot of things, cynicism isn’t one of them. Indeed, their dealings with their fans, the press, the music business, and the world in general over two decades have been a model of positive honesty.

The album doesn’t need boosting either. Just as it is, Undermind stands proudly with Phish’s finest studio creations, 1996’s Billy Breathes and 2000’s Farmhouse (both on Elektra). Like those albums, it features both concise songs with a pronounced rustic flavor and more open-ended experimental rock. Unlike those albums, it was produced by Tchad Blake (Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Tom Waits), who turns out to have been an inspired choice as sonic helmsman. Right from the auspicious opening seconds of "Scents and Subtle Sounds (Intro)," which are graced with a halo of Mellotron strings and punctuated by cheery triangle hits, you can hear that producer and band are on the same wavelength. Not just tolerant of Phish’s psychedelic, exploratory side, Blake actively encourages it, and the results can be magical; check out Anastasio’s tremolo-and-wah-wah-laden guitar part on the Traffic-esque "A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing," or McConnell’s subterranean web of keyboards on the title track. Straight folk-rock tunes like "The Connection" and "Crowd Control" show that Blake can handle the down-home stuff, too, injecting a subtle warmth that recalls his acclaimed work with Los Lobos.

In more ways than one, Undermind feels like a goodbye. Fans will undoubtedly focus on several lyrical "clues" that may or may not refer to the split, the most obvious being a line Trey sings in "Two Versions of Me": "No more fish . . . in the sea." For the first time since 1990’s Lawn Boy, every member of the band is represented as a composer, and that adds to the air of accounts being settled. And then there’s the way the album ends. The penultimate "Secret Smile" is a stirring ballad with a gorgeous string arrangement by jazz composer Maria Schneider; the words describe the coming of twilight, as the setting sun "fills the oceans with red wine." Goaded by Anastasio’s E-bowed guitar, the music builds to a quiet peak, then subsides. After a long pause, the band encore in full barbershop-quartet form, singing a jaunty one-minute a cappella number about teeth. Brings to mind another swan song, the Beatles’ Abbey Road, which followed the epic "The End" with the tongue-in-cheek "Her Majesty." If this really is the end for Phish, it’s going out in classic-rock style.

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Issue Date: June 11 - 17, 2004
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