Despite the Grateful Dead comparisons that haunted them, Phish always lacked something their vintage counterparts had in abundance: substantial tunes sung by voices dripping with personality. A little too late, Phish finally caught on to their shortcoming. In a 26-minute DVD that accompanies their now final album, ''Undermind'', the band and producer Tchad Blake (Los Lobos, Elvis Costello) are seen working diligently on composing songs, crafting hooks, and paring down their jams in order to accomplish what one of the musicians calls ''the grandest idea -- communication.''
Now and then, these proud, avowed noodlers come closer than ever to achieving that most basic of musical goals. All warm-fireplace harmonies and jaunty beats, the single ''The Connection'' actually sounds like a single, if not a complete song, and the woodsy funkiness of the title track is reminiscent of The Band. Keyboardist Page McConnell's blandly meditative ballads, like ''Army of One,'' balance out guitarist Trey Anastasio's pumped-up numbers. For most of the album, Phish sound tighter and more alive than they normally do off stage.
Try as they might, though, the band can't avoid the cloying tendencies that have always hampered their studio work. The misty imagery of their lyrics rarely crystallizes; ''Crowd Control'' could be heard as a call for political change, but the band is too polite to force the issue. They still resort to shtick: whistling, singing a cappella ditties, and making a racket that sounds like a clock store at the top of the hour. When they try to be raw, as in ''A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing,'' they sound sloppy. On what amounts to their swan song, Phish break a sweat trying to reach beyond their cult. But it's not hard to understand why Anastasio, for one, wanted out. For all the headway made here, the band can't communicate much beyond an insular, granolarock congeniality.