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Umphrey's McGee: The London Session
by George Graham
(Hanging Brains Music As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/8/2015)
The jam band scene has grown into an interesting spectrum of musical variations. They include the old-style jam bands who play rather simple rock tunes and improvise at length. But the jam band scene is also turning out to be the haven for today’s progressive rock bands, with more structured and orchestrated music. One group who encompass both the live jam band improvisational aspect and the more sophisticated progressive rock side of things is Umphery’s McGee, who have been doing that sort of thing since the latter 1990s, when the band formed on the campus of Notre Dame University. Like the String Cheese Incident, Umphrey’s McGee brings to the table a high level of musicianship. Their style has been called “im-prog.”
Umphrey’s McGee also tours extensively and releases an album almost every year. While they have issued some live recordings, they tend to concentrate their creative efforts on their studio albums in which their compositions are given full opportunity to develop, and despite their reputation as a tight live band, they often spent a lot of time in the studio perfecting their music.
With that in mind, their new recording The London Session turns out to be interesting in several ways. For one, it was recorded at the famous Abbey Road studio, where one could argue that art rock was born through the experimentation by the Beatles. And for another it was recorded virtually live in one day.
The album came about when Umphrey’s McGee was booked for some dates in England and they had a day available in their itinerary. Their sound engineer, upon hearing of the British dates made a half-joking suggestion, according to the band’s extensive liner notes, that they try to get into Abbey Road Studio. They were able to book one day, twelve hours of time in the studio in June of last year (2014). Since the group had just released Similar Skin, and since they felt they had not had enough time to prepare new material, they went in with the intent to re-interpret some of the music that they had already recorded and do tunes that they were playing on the road and which had not been released. They made a list of material, but said that they did not necessarily follow it. With only one day to do an album, that left no time for overdubs, so they decided to record all the instrumental tracks live. The band writes, “We’re efficient with time but not that efficient. Eight vocal tracks proved even more than we could pull off in a twelve-hour day.” So they recorded the vocals close to their Chicago base and in Los Angeles. They also took two different approaches. Six of the ten tracks were recorded with multiple takes, as many as eight takes per tune, and the rest were recorded apparently at the end of the day by which the group members were tired, exacerbated by jet lag, and hungry. They recorded several tunes in what they describe as a “mini-set” doing everything on one take and playing as if they were on stage.
The cavernous Abbey Road Studio 2, where the Beatles did most of their recording, is as much as presence on this album as anything else. The difference is subtle and probably had its greatest effect on the attitude of the band members, since after the day of recording at Abbey Road, the band mixed the album in US studios where they usually work. Still, it’s one of the band’s better albums sonically. More about that later.
The ten-song CD opens with a tune which the band has been playing live but had not been previously recorded, Bad Friday, by the one of the band’s guitarists Brendan Bayliss. It represents the more, shall we say, “pop” side, relatively speaking, of this progressive band. <<>>
That is followed by a remake of a tune that first appeared on their The Bottom Half CD in 2007. They call it Rocker Part 2. It’s a good example of the band’s progressive tendencies with its elaborate arrangement and generally higher energy level. <<>>
The London Session contains remakes of two tunes from their last studio album Similar Skin released just last fall. In order to give them a different spin, the band does them mostly acoustically, including the piano that had been used on several famous Beatles albums. The first of them is No Diablo. This version of the tune is first-rate. <<>>
Cut the Cable is another tune first recorded only last year and given a new acoustic treatment. This version does not really add much, though. <<>>
Out of Order is one of the tunes that came out of the part of the session near the end in which the band played a set of first takes if they were performing live. This track turns out to be one of the album’s highlights. The tune is classic-style art rock in its elaborate arrangement done in 6/8 time. <<>>
Like many progressive bands, Umphrey’s McGee can get lighthearted and whimscal at times. A song called Eat, though musically harder-edged, has lyrics that extoll the virtues of food. The band’s liner notes say that guitarist Jake Cinninger tried to channel the Sesame Street Cookie monster. It also came out of the one-take part of the session. <<>>
Somewhat more like conventional rock is the tune Glory, which was first released on a live album in 2003. The instrumental has an almost anthem-like quality, and is nicely done. <<>>
At the end of their long day at Abbey Road, Umphrey’s McGee decided to have some fun and pay tribute to their environs so they did a version of the Beatles I Want You (She’s So Heavy), which hews toward the original more or less. They intended it for their own fun, but in the end decide to include it on the album, added in their liner notes “Hope You Don’t Mind.” The band does a competent job, but really does not add much to the original, other than some good jamming sections. <<>>
Umphrey’s McGee’s new CD The London Session is an album that seems aimed at the band’s existing fans, a chance to hear this very American group from the Midwest in the legendary recording studio where so much historic music has been made. With a limited amount of time available, they did a grueling one-day 12-hour session and recorded ten instrumental tracks, mostly revisiting past material. Often the results surpass the originals, even on the tunes that they did live in one take. While they added the vocals back in the states and mixed the album in their regular studio, the ambiance and sonic quality of the Abbey Road sound is still apparent.
However, our grade for sound quality is no better than an B Plus. The band wrote about the wonderful acoustics in the studio and the quality of the drum sound. But that was almost all for naught with the mixing and mastering with typical brain-dead loudness-wars overuse of volume-compression which squashed out the dynamics and made the drums sound all at the same monotonous volume, unlike the old Beatles recordings which had a much more open sound with Ringo’s drums not compressed nearly as much.
It seems like a natural combination, a band with the musical sophistication of Umphrey’s McGee in a historic environment. All in all, it works quite well, and even if you are not a regular fan of this group, and perhaps hearing this material for the first time, it’s still a most worthwhile listening experience.
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