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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1657

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Umphrey's McGee: Death by Stereo
by George Graham

(ATO Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/21/2011)

The jam band scene continues to flourish. But there seems to be a phase that jam bands go through at a certain point after a number of years together. After doing recordings reflecting the extended improvisation these bands do in performance, they move toward albums of shorter, more produced and arranged material. It happened to Phish, then to the String Cheese Incident, and now on the latest recording from the one of the most popular of the current bands on the jam-band scene, the Chicago-based jam and progressive rock band Umphrey's McGee. Their new release is called Death by Stereo. Perhaps it's coincidence, or a desire to expand audiences, or experiment with different forms, but Umphrey's McGee have arrived at the point of striving for more succinctness at least on their record and with generally worthy results.

Umphrey's McGee formed in 1997 at South Bend, Indiana, on the campus of Notre Dame University, with members of two bands on campus combining into one. The members have maintained a strong personal relationship since them, and tour constantly, putting in over 100 shows per year, and are often the headline act on jam-band package shows. Like many groups on the jam band scene, they are very much a live band, and don't discourage fans from recording their shows. They also do things like their own regular podcasts and otherwise taking advantage of the opportunities to connect with fans that the Internet allows. The group is distinctive in achieving popularity on the jam band scene with music that has the level of musicianship and elaborate arrangements that are typical of the art rock/progressive rock scene.

Umphrey's McGee's early recordings reflected the band's live direction, and even when in the studio, recorded material that was time and road-tested. Their last album, Mantis in 2009 marked the first time they debuted material on a CD that was not part of their road shows, though they still went for a couple of the extended pieces for which they are known.

The new CD, Death by Stereo continues further in that direction. Many of the tunes are downright brief, and have added studio musicians, including a string section. As on their last album, the material on Death by Stereo is music that is new to even their most ardent concert fans, and ranges from almost straight pop, to a couple of longer pieces on which the band does get a chance to stretch out instrumentally. With one exception it's all music that the group had not performed live previously.

The personnel remains the same with Joel Cummins on keyboards, Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss on guitars, Ryan Stasik on bass, Kris Myers on drums and Andy Farag on percussion. All but Stasik sing. As mentioned, this CD has a number of studio musicians brought in for specific parts, including strings and a horn section. Once again, the band worked with co-producer Manny Sanchez, who has also worked with Smashing Pumpkins. The result still captures much of the musical level of the progressive rock bands, while keeping the tunes relatively short and in many cases, tuneful enough to win audiences among some pop music fans. The sounds range from energetic turn-it-up-to-10 rock to a solo acoustic guitar instrumental.

The opening track, which was also meant as the closest thing to a single that this band does, is called Miami Virtue. It does reflect the side of the band that is moving toward more mainstream pop. It's a fairly interesting tune, but the compromise between the progressive and the pop seems less than completely comfortable. <<>>

That continues on the following piece Domino Theory, which is about as cranked up in volume as this band gets. Again, this kind of thing is not their greatest strength. <<>>

The Umphrey's McGee we have come to know as an art rock band that can jam finally comes to the fore on a track called Search 4. At 6 minutes, it's the longest tune on the CD, though still fairly brief by jam-band standards. <<>>

Umphrey's McGee likes to note that concert goers don't know what to expect musically from the band, and that element of surprise is also present on this CD. Booth Love is a tune that, perhaps just for the fun of it, goes back to 1970s disco for its basic sound, complete with horn section. <<>>

The aforementioned guitar instrumental is called Dim Sun, and it's done by Jake Cinninger. It makes for a nice little interlude. <<>>

Another track that puts Umphrey's McGee back into progressive rock territory is The Floor. It's definitely one of the highlights of the CD. <<>>

Also with some musical surprises is Deeper which features something of funk beat with an almost choral vocal and the string section making for a curious mixture. <<>>

The CD ends with a tune the group say they have been performing live since they first started, though it has changed a lot over the years. It's called Hajimenashite, which they say is a Japanese expression meaning "nice to meet you."

Umphrey's McGee's new CD Death by Stereo represents a phase in the band, in which following in the footsteps of fellow jam bands Phish and String Cheese Incident, they turned their attention to a more studio-oriented recording, with less jamming and more succinct songs. Indeed, the full ten-track CD times in at only 41 minutes, after previous hour-plus-long recordings. Some of their fans may look askance at the direction of some of the songs, but they are all well-done with great musicianship. And Umphrey's are known for their surprises. I think it's a musically satisfying recording by a versatile band, but not their best.

Our grade for sound quality is about a B plus. It's often loud, and one track has distorted vocals, which I simply can't abide. The dynamic range is about typical for a rock album, with some sonic subtlety sacrificed for naked loudness.

According to Wikipedia, the group got its name one night after they were introduced by comedian Rodney Dangerfield. They were originally called "Hubert Humphrey's Blues Band featuring Flappy McGee." Through a combination of Dangerfield's famous delivery style and what is claimed to be a loose connection in the PA system all the crowd heard "Umphrey's McGee." And the name stuck. The group remains in the forefront of the jam band scene. While the band has done a better in the past, this CD is typical of their desire to keep trying different things and keep the music interesting. And in that respect, they succeed providing a few surprises along with their excellent musicianship.

(c) Copyright 2011 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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