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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1369

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Umphrey's McGee: Anchor Drops
by George Graham

(SCI Fidelity 0006 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/30/2004)

Rock has survived as long as it has because it is constantly changing, evolving new styles and subgenres. It is more or less by definition fad driven, but it is also surprising how many of the supposedly short-lived styles of the past have continued on beyond the original artists who now play them on the nostalgia circuit. New generations of players are performing everything from doo-wop to 1960s psychedelia to English folk.

One of the styles which came to epitomize the late 1960s and early 1970s, and for some was the personification of how rock turned its back on its simple, rebellious roots, was the progressive or art rock scene. Popularized by the bands Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Genesis, the largely British-led genre brought rock to a symphonic level, and tended to be characterized by huge, high-budget stage shows. But despite what skeptics called the music's theatrical excess, progressive rock was a catalyst to raise considerably the level of musicianship among rock bands. The style's lengthy sophisticated compositions, elaborate, complex arrangements, and virtousic playing attracted a large audience who were looking for more than just three-chord rock, and made some of the players in those bands, such as Keith Emerson, Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman of Yes into instrumental heroes.

The punk movement of the mid 1970s was partly a reaction against the sophistication of the progressive rock scene, and since then, art rock has fallen out of most of the public's consciousness. But the music continues on as something as a cult phenomenon, with of course, some of the original artists still active, but also a surprising number of younger bands taking up the "prog-rock" banner. This week, we have an impressive new recording by a Chicago-area band that has been together now for almost seven years, Umphrey's McGee, and their new CD, their at least their fifth release, called Anchor Drops.

The band's official biography is unclear where the sextet's unusual name came from, but it does say that Umphrey's McGee was formed in 1997 by the merger of two bands from South Bend, Indiana, with original members including Joel Cummins on keyboards and vocals, guitarist and vocalist Brendan Bayliss, and Ryan Stasik on bass. With tongue in cheek, they called their 1997 debut release Greatest Hits Vol. 3. Over the years, the personnel expanded to a sextet to include percussionist Andy Farag, additional guitarist Jake Cinniger, and drummer Kris Myers. In its current incarnation, the two guitarists do most of the composing, though other members also contribute to the lyrics.

The group has developed a considerable fan base in and around Chicago, and they have released a couple of live CDs. But this album is an effort to establish the band nationally. They succeed brilliantly. It's a recording that will likely find its way onto the year's ten-best lists for many art rock fans. But they also bring a more free-wheeling improvisational aspect to some of their music that has seen the band attracting audiences among jam band fans. Indeed they are playing some of the big jam band festivals this year.

Umphrey's McGee bring together ingredients familiar to prog-rock fans, the tricky time-signatures, the swirling guitars and lengthy, multi-faceted arrangements. But they add a somewhat more contemporary feel with occasionally funky rhythms, and a generally breezier sound than many of the art rockers of the 1970s. Their sound is fairly wide-ranging in its other influences -- there is even a folk-country influenced track, along with a bit of the humor that was a characteristic of some 1970s art rock groups, like Hatfield and the North.

With six members, Umphrey's McGee is a genuine musical team, in that there is not a particular member who is constantly in the spotlight. The vocalists vary and each of the instrumentalists eventually gets a solo without hogging the spotlight for too long. The emphasis is on their compositions and creative arrangements. In keeping with what seems like an art rock tradition, their lyrics are not exactly the profound poetry one would expect from an folk-influenced singer-songwriter, but they do write some intriguing words running from the philosophical to the tongue-in-cheek. And there are also a couple of instrumentals allowing the band to concentrate on their music.

The generous 65 minute CD starts off with Plunger, which combines some classic progressive rock guitar riffs with alternative rock influenced vocals. <<>> The fun begins in the middle section when the group gets into their interesting mood and instrumentation changes. They can recall the great American art band Happy the Man. <<>>

The title track, Anchor Drops adds a kind of breezy funkiness that breaks the art rock stereotype. It's a highlight of the album. <<>>

A further facet of the band that extends well beyond the progressive rock mold is shown on the track Bullhead City, a folky-sounding waltz with an unnamed guest vocalist. <<>>

A progressive rock band would be remiss if it did not include at least one instrumental on their CD. Umphrey's McGee provides four on Anchor Drops, including one that is in two discontinuous parts. The one that is in classic art mold is Miss Tinkle's Overture. The piece shows the band has been doing its homework listening to Yes and Gentle Giant. <<>>

There has been a long-running tradition among some art rock bands to include some lighthearted, witty or otherwise quirky lyrics. Umphrey's McGee follows suit on the song Uncommon, which can at times also resemble the band Phish. <<>>

Probably the most articulate lyrics come on the song Walletsworth about homelessness, which also highlights the band's penchant for musical complexity. The result is another memorable track on a generally fascinating album. <<>>

The band tries its hand at a kind of retro-techno sound on an instrumental piece appropriately named Robot World complete with old analogue synthesizers. It's one area in which the band does not succeed quite as well, mainly because of a few too many clichés. <<>>

One would expect a group like this to create some really lengthy compositions, but that is generally not the case on this CD. The closest thing to a magnum opus on Anchor Drops is a track called Wife Soup, at just under eight minutes. Still, Umphrey's McGee gets a chance to run a gamut of musical ingredients, from funky with an added horn section, to classic progressive rock. <<>>

The Chicago-based sextet Umphrey's McGee prove themselves to be a fascinating amalgam on their new CD Anchor Drops. An art rock band at heart, they cite the Beatles, Yes, King Crimson, Genesis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra as significant influences, along with Miles Davis and the late fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius. But in addition to reviving venerable art rock influence, the band is also finding audiences among the contemporary jam-band crowd, and one can hear some of that influence, while still keeping their music tightly structured and fairly succinct in length on this CD. The musicianship is first-rate but rarely exhibitionist. The group's greatest strength comes in its compositions and arrangements, and the way the group plays seemlessly as an ensemble. They are a 21st Century progressive rock band that draws from the past but has not allowed itself to become purely retro.

Our grade for sound quality is about a B-minus. The instruments and vocals are generally well-captured, and the use of use of studio effects is tastefully understated, but the CD was compressed excessively in mastering, leaving a lifeless sound that negates the dynamic ebb and flow of the music.

Umphrey's McGee is taking a cue from the jam bands in the way they conduct their shows and invite fans to tape their performances and trade them. So the jam band scene may yet provide a new avenue for progressive rock, even though the sophisticated arrangements of Umphrey's McGee on their new CD are a long way from the free-wheeling improvisations of some of the jammers. Long-time fans of the progressive rock scene also have reason to rejoice over an album that provides so many of the musically interesting aspects of the scene, while adding some fresh ingredients.

(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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