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(SCI Fidelity 1032 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/29/2006)
In reference to the ornate, and some would say bombastic style of rock in the 1970s, a few years ago one wag said "Art rock isn't dead, it just smells funny." That comment still has some comedic relevance as the art rock scene continues to flourish very much under the commercial pop radar. Where once bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer were the biggest things in rock, the idea of playing elaborately arranged, complex rock with showy musicianship persists, though now with largely a cult following. But endure it does, with specialty festivals, and bands touring the world to play music that is lightyears from what can be found at the top of the charts. This week, we have the latest release by a band that is currently one of the bright lights of the art rock scene, Umphrey's McGee. Their new CD is called Safety in Numbers.
It seems that part of the growth in the popularity art rock, or progressive rock can be attributed to the revived jam band scene. Bands that play extended instrumental segments, even though they may be tightly arranged, are a natural for jam band festivals, and indeed Umphrey's McGee has played signature jam band events like the Bonnaroo festival.
Umphrey's McGee's last release, Anchor Drops issued in 2004, deftly spanned the territory between jam bands and art rock. Now their new CD Safety in Numbers, their sixth release, puts them very much in the Art Rock camp with more of the of the tighter, intricate arrangements on many of the tracks, and fewer individual instrumental solos. It shows off the excellent composing and arranging the band does, but it also relies more heavily on vocals, which is not the group's greatest strength.
Umphrey's McGee was formed in 1997 by the merger of two bands from South Bend, Indiana. They were originally a quartet with Joel Cummins on keyboards, Brendon Bayliss on guitar, bassist Ryan Stasik and original drummer Mike Mirro, who left the band after a couple of years to attend medical school. They have since grown to a sextet with replacement drummer Kris Myers, additional guitarist Jake Cinniger and percussionist Andy Farag. The members list their two biggest influences as the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, though they have definitely moved beyond the latter, and into the realm of groups like XTC. And not surprisingly, they also cite the Mahavishu Orchestra and Yes, Genesis and King Crimson as inspirations. Over the years, they have grown from a regional band to one with an international following through a network of so-called "street teams" of fans who spread the word about the group in anticipation of their appearances along each tour. They also very much follow the jam-band paradigm of encouraging the recording of their shows, and the trading of recordings among fans.
Perhaps in light of that and as an alternative, Safety in Numbers is a very much a studio recording, with more structured performances and a sound that hints at the golden days of art rock, rather than the jam band scene.
Umphrey's McGee is definitely a group of first-class musicians, but they tend not to be very showy. On this album, especially, the band's distinctive trademark is their compositions that can turn on a dime, moving from full bore rock into quirky, irregular meters, and to folky acoustic material.
Safety in Numbers, which was largely recorded in Chicago, has a couple of notable guests, rocker Huey Lewis, who adds his harmonica and backing vocals, and acclaimed jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman also adds his horn to one piece.
The CD is structured to be, I guess you could say "front-loaded," with the strongest, most interesting material toward the beginning of the album, while the latter tracks tend to peter out a bit. Lyrically, Umphrey's McGee's writing is better than most art rock bands but it's the playing that is their strongest suit.
Leading off is one of the CD's best and lengthiest tracks, Believe the Lie. It epitomizes the band's prog-rock tendencies at their best, with lots of tricky, but appealing rhythmic shifts, and some of the band's best lyrics. <<>>
That leads into a slightly more laid-back piece, Rocker, which features a curious combination of cellos, played by guest artist Chris Hoffman, and slide-style guitar. <<>>
Another intriguing piece is Liquid, which starts with a kind of mutant reggae beat, before the band evokes 1960s pop. <<>>
Huey Lewis makes his appearance on the song called Women Wine and Song. Perhaps not surprisingly, given Huey Lewis' style, the track is as close to straight rock and this band gets, with hints of Southern-style rock. It's another interesting direction the band takes. <<>>
Also highlighting the group's art rock credentials is a track called Words, which for me is the best combination of what Umphrey's McGee excels at. <<>>
There is but one instrumental on Safety in Numbers, and surprisingly, it's based on a folky-sounding acoustic guitar. The title is End of the Road, and it provides another interesting facet from the band. <<>>
As mentioned, the CD does tend to lose momentum toward its end. Passing, the song whose lyrics contain the line from which the CD's title comes, doesn't quite have the musical substance of some of the album's other material, and also tends to show the band's vocal shortcomings. <<>>
The CD ends with another acoustic track, The Weight Around, which features appropriately poetic lyrics, but this sort of thing is not the band's strength. <<>>
Safety in Numbers, the new CD from Umphrey's McGee is a worthy recording from this 21st Century Art Rock band. While their concerts and previous recordings tend toward a mixture of art rock with jam band influence, this CD is more oriented toward the intricately arranged art rock side of things. And it largely succeeds, with some great composing and arranging, and first-rate musicianship. But there is also some material that is decidedly weaker, in terms of composing, and occasionally in terms of vocal performance. But on balance it's a great CD to satisfy fans of progressive rock looking to sate their appetite, and it's also likely to appeal to jam band fans, and perhaps even devotees of jazz-rock fusion.
Sonically, we'll give the CD close to an A. It's all well-recorded, the use of studio effects is sparing but effective, and the dynamic range, while not great, is better than many rock albums. Also notable is the CD booklet's great artwork, which recalls the classic photographic tricks that the the orgianization known as Hipgnosis created for Pink Floyd and other British bands of the period. In this case, it's a sheep sleeping in bed, with a view through a window of a field with people in pajamas grazing in the grass.
Progressive rock is certainly not at the popular level it was some 30 years ago, but the genre continues with a stream of worthwhile new music being made by second and third generation bands. Umphrey's McGee on their new CD underscores their position as one of the standouts.
(c) Copyright 2005 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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