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Umphrey's McGee: It's Not Us
by George Graham
(Hanging Brains Music As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/17/2018)
The jam band scene remains active, and has been diversifying over the years. Onegroup that has been a constant presence for some 20 years is Umphrey’s McGee, which formed in 1997 on the campus of Notre Dame University. In noting their 20th anniversary, they went into the studio for their 11th full-length studio album, called It’s Not Us.
Umphrey’s McGee formed out of members of two groups on Notre Dame campus, and like many such bands started out by doing covers, though from the outset they showed their eclecticism. To help them line up gigs from venues looking for experienced bands, they named their first record Greatest Hits Volume Three. And they have been going their own way since then. One of the notable aspects of Umphrey’s McGee is their level of musicianship. Their music has been called “im-prog” for their fusion of the improvisations of jam bands with the elaborate compositions and arrangements of the progressive rockers. They put a lot of effort into their live shows, and like some other groups on the jam band scene, they encourage recording of their shows by fans, and was one of the first groups to offer instant recordings of their shows that their fans could buy on the way out of the concert. One of their more recent innovations was an optional premium headphone setup so audience members could hear the show straight off the mixing console.
The group notes on their website that with their 20th anniversary last year, they were anxious to come up with all new material, and also embody the various facets of their sounds, from the progressive to the near-heavy metal, to the funk influenced and even an acoustic ballad. To bring back the spirit of the early days of the group, five of the six members, who now have their own families and live scattered across the country, moved into a rental condo near the recording studio in Chicago where they did most of their work, while guitarist Brendan Bayliss was already living nearby.
The result is a strong album that largely lives up to the band’s intentions. The one thing they did not do, and it was intentional, was to include lengthy jams on the studio record. But there are some tracks that allow the group to stretch out musically. As usual for the band, the It’s Not Us is largely self-contained, though there is an appearance by notable jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman. Most of the material comes from the pens of guitarists Bayliss and Jake Cininger, though there are contributions by others.
The album opens with the closest thing it has to a commercial rock track, The Silent Type, with the band holding back its musical eclecticism and cranking up the volume. Still, it’s definitely a cut above most such material on the pop music scene. <<>>
Also with volume cranked up is following piece called Looks, which brings in an oddly funky beat with some heavy-metal guitar riffs. <<>>
More in keeping with Umphrey’s McGee’s reputation for eclecticism is Whistle Kids with its actual whistling and the band’s kind of progressive funk influenced groove. <<>>
Umhrey’s McGee gets more into its art-rock side on one its four lengthier tracks, Maybe Someday, which unfolds in sections with the band emphasizing more ensemble playing rather then long jammy instrumental solos. <<>>
Another longer track is called Remind Me which is really two separate pieces with a sort of appealingly melodic funk first section <<>> before it goes all-out heavy metal. <<>>
Located right after that on the album, to provide a maximum juxtaposition effect, is a song called You & You Alone, an acoustic ballad with a string section. <<>>
The track featuring jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman is Speak Up, which is Umphrey’s McGee at their best, an interesting mix of styles with that goes back and forth between funk and melodic rock. <<>>
A further highlight of the album is Piranhas which also features some of the band’s musical trademarks, along with some of its best lyrics. <<>>
Probably my favorite track on the album is one called Forks written by the band’s two guitarists, which also highlights Umphrey’s McGee’s strengths, both in composing and their playing. It’s a kind of tuneful piece but much into the progressive rock accoutrements.
It’s Not Us, the eleventh studio album by the 20-year-old progressive rock/jam band Umphrey’s McGee is among its best. They aimed to come up with as much new sounding material as possible, but maintain most elements of their trademark sound. The playing is first-rate, the tunes are generally interesting and encompass a lot of what the band likes to do.
Our grade for sound quality is a B-Plus. The drums sound especially good, and most of the time, the mix is fairly clean, but there there is heavy volume compression, making things pretty much the same loud volume most of the time, and there are a couple of tracks with intentionally distorted, over-driven vocals, which for me is always a cause for serious demerits.
The album’s title, It’s Not Us, by the way is meant as a tribute to the band’s fans, saying that it is because of the fans that the band is doing what it’s doing. Twenty years on, Umphrey’s McGee remains one of the best on the jam band scene, and their new album nicely highlights their wide-ranging sound.
(c) Copyright 2018 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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