For their twelfth and last studio album, Phish team up with the most fitting producer they’ve ever used: Tchad Blake, whose talent for bringing just the right unorthodox textures to roots-rock artists has yielded breakthrough works such as Los Lobos’ Kiko and Sheryl Crow’s second album, Sheryl Crow. On Undermind, Blake encourages Phish to do what they do best (experiment) and fine-tunes their worst tendencies (weak songwriting and instrumental overkill). The band delivers the most commanding song of its sixteen-year recording career, “The Connection.” With its blast of ringing guitars, a hummable country-rock melody and Trey Anastasio’s earthy vocals and surprisingly focused lyrics, the song evokes “Box of Rain,” one of the stronger tunes by Phish’s most obvious influence, the Grateful Dead.
But Undermind is no vintage American Beauty. Unlike the Dead’s famous folk-rock album — or even Billy Breathes, Phish’s other studio high point — Undermind is giddily adventurous. The album’s fourteen tracks run from the simple, stripped-down psychedelia of the opening “Scents and Subtle Sounds” to the joyous rock of “Crowd Control”; from the dense, fuzzy feedback of “Maggie’s Revenge” to the nearly translucent symphonic pop of “Secret Smile.” Even Phish’s whimsical side doesn’t come off as so annoying: Blake musses up the bumbling “Access Me” with gritty electronic touches and skittering beats, and he submerges the awkward lyric clutter of “Nothing” beneath the song’s sweet, catchy melody. If Phish really are going out this time, they’re going out in style.