One of the most difficult things for jam bands is to recapture the impact and warmth of their live performances on tape. It is almost impossible to create the same energy when your music heavily relies on improvisations, spontaneous melodies, and extended solos that touch base with every genre imaginable, from country to blues to jazz, bluegrass, funk, and rock'n'roll. Despite the difficulties though, Umphrey's McGee put out a solo album in the form of Anchor Drops in 2004 that also helped gain them a wider audience, having been released internationally through InsideOut Music.
Now, on their new album, the Chicago-based band have written a more focused album that emphasizes composition and structure rather than improvisation and complex rhythms. The extended guitar solos are kept to a minimum on the sextet's new release. The melodies are more upfront, with the vocals playing a central role in most of the songs. Numbers like "Rocker" and "Liquid" are quite possibly Umphrey's McGee's most defined songs to date. Both obviously written on acoustic guitar and then applied to more varied instrumentation, the songs brim with rich vocal harmonies and wonderful slide guitar. The solo on "Rocker" strangely recalls Gilmour's most passionate yet at the same time painstakingly composed guitar work, where each sustained note is allowed to leave its effect on the listener; while the vocals on "Liquid" are hauntingly beautiful and, dare I say, romantic. Those who've only listened to the band's previous albums will be very surprised when they hear all those harmonies and harmonica here. The only thing that would prevent this piece from being a radio single is its 30 second outro utilising a chaotic "jam band" madness. Awesome stuff.
The shorter and more concise tracks present the band's dirty rock'n'roll roots, particularly on the blues rock-inflected "Nemo" and funky "Women Wine and Song", a track highlighted by a cool multiple vocal arrangement, gripping chorus, and bluesgrass meets country lead tone, amidst sounds of jazz piano and harmonica. Great saxophone work graces "Intentions Clear", as the band displays their deep American tradition of folky instrumental on "End of the Road". The title track and "The Weight Around" are both moody and painful, filled with gently plucked acoustic guitars, harmony vocals, and subtle rhythms. Drummer Kris Myers' percussion on the slightly more progressive "Words" is incredible. Light cymbal crashes, weird world music type of beats and sudden rhythmic changes are aplenty here and serve the almost psychedelic mood that precedes Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger's impressive guitar interplay.
It is obvious that Umphrey's McGee have decided to save their more progressive and complex compositions for a future release. However, given the mesmerizing bass on "Believe the Lie", so funky and so groovy, enhanced with subtle keyboard touches, blazing organ and guitar leads; or the even more compelling "Ocean Billy", easily the darkest and most brooding Umphrey's McGee song (once again emphasizing unheard percussion and dense atmospherics), this band has a lot more to offer to their ever-growing fan base.
Safety in Numbers is quite a departure from their well-received Anchor Drops, but it is equally realized and riveting. Kudos also go to Storm Thorgerson's beautiful artwork.
- Believe the Lie
- Women Wine and Song
- Intentions Clear
- End of the Road
- Ocean Billy
- The Weight Around