MUSIC REVIEW: UMPHREY’S McGEE: it’s not us
Have you ever had a taste for a mix of latter-day post-rock, prog, with a touch of Zappa, by way of MAHAVISHNU but could not be bothered getting off the couch to change discs?
Indiana band UMPHREY'S McGEE may be just the tonic you are looking for.
UMPHREY'S McGEE: 'it's not us'
Hanging Brains Music: January 2018
The January release of the sardonically titled and very defiantly lower case 'it's not us' pretty much tells you everything you need to know, without perhaps giving you a definite starting point from which to travel.
UMPHREY'S McGEE seemed to coalesce sometime around 1997, and like a lot of great University groups cut their teeth in other bands.
The line up has remained particularly stable:
- Brendan Bayliss - vocals and guitar.
- Ryan Stasik - electric bass.
- Joel Cummins - vocals, keyboards.
- Andy Farag - percussion
Original drummer Mike Mirro departed in 2002, Kris Myers eventually filling the chair.
Guitarist Jake Cinninger added his superlative talent to the lineup in 2000.
O.K. - a few thoughts.
Firstly, these are all exceptional players, and, as often happens, when a keyboardist is included in a band, the quality of the arrangements can skyrocket.
The potential for complicated and interesting arrangements makes for some very diverse music.
What this means, in essence, is you have an ensemble capable of playing intricate and detailed music, and in the next moment, heading off into the universe in any number of directions.
In this case, it is fuelled by a love of some of the best music to emerge over the past five decades.
Secondly, the U.S.A. has a tradition of so-called 'JAM BANDS,' something we do not seem to have in Australasia or the U.K.
Is it the preponderance of the festival scene ranging over such a large continent throughout the year that allows these bands to thrive and build such loyal and dedicated followers.
Tracing it back, off the top of my head, you would find THE GRATEFUL DEAD, who, with a bunch of musicians ranging from competent to inspired, built a repertoire based around their ability/desire to take a tune and 'wring its neck.'
They also built loyalty by allowing their audience to tape the shows. A practice that bought rewards decades later with their rich history documented and annotated for all time.
Another that comes to mind is JEFFERSON AIRPLANE, with some of their finest moments being the live workouts of otherwise 2-3 minute radio-friendly tunes.
Jump forward through the decades, and we could point to PHISH, and largely unknown to Australians, the semi-legendary WIDESPREAD PANIC.
Both bands distinguished by excellent musicianship, co-writers, interesting arrangements, and the willingness to take it all on the road.
- Did Australia actually have an early adopter JAM BAND with classic line up of BILLY THORPE and THE AZTECS - I remember the outros could actually last longer than the songs!
UMPHREY'S McGEE are within the same honourable lineage, with the added advantage of some primo influences.
Everything, as mentioned, from vintage PROG, to ZAPPA, MAHAVISHNU, NWOBHM, all the way back to THE BEATLES.
These influences manifest in a few interesting ways.
The band is renowned for their live shows, in which sacred classics sit amongst originals in a quite seamless manner. Jump onto YouTube to see some excellent live covers for evidence.
But the sources often inform what we hear in the originals.
As I listened through the album for the first time, the arch title 'it's not us' made sense.
That, of course, is my take on it. Joel Cummins has a different take:
We called the record it’s not us, because it’s really not about us, this is for the fans.
So, where does it sit in the current spectrum?
This is 'new rock' for those older listeners who lament the passing of the golden age of rock - the album era. I suspect they will have the same albums in their collections as the band members. Usually on old fashioned vinyl, and lovingly curated over the years.
But it's also for the younger listener wondering what it was all about, and it's these listeners that will be more adept at downloading the copious live shows available.
But mostly, this album is for those listeners who can sit and play a whole album in one go. Pay the price, take the full journey.
I should mention the production values as they are way above average. Self produced by the band, with Greg Magers assisting, it was mixed by Manny Sanchez and mastered by Brad Blackwood at EUPHONIC MASTERS.
In sonic terms, this is one of the best recent rock releases I have heard.
Everything is crystal clear in the mix, with details revealed at every turn. But also very muscular as required, and gentle in turn. Very much a set that will reward repeated plays.
The sequencing works, with, for me, one exception: I would have placed 'PIRANHAS' as the closer.
I should also note, if you were not aware of the band's reputation, you would not guess the JAM BAND thread in their makeup.
There is some serious editing going on here, and even the two tracks you want to go on forever, are delivered concisely and discharged with no chance of cobwebs developing.
Let's have a look at the tracks here;
- 'THE SILENT TYPE' - anchored by a simple bass line locked in over a straightforward drum pattern, this is perhaps the most accessible track here. A skittering keyboard line weaves in and out. Most likely to garner radio play.
- 'LOOKS' - treated vocals float on a fractured rhythm. Short sweet, with a fantastic ascending guitar line to wind it down.
- 'WHISTLE KIDS'- slowing things down here. Very spacious mix, everything quite distinct. Nice solo guitar lines in the left channel. Again, the rhythm section plays it very restrained and tight. They, bass and drums, are so well captured.
- 'HALF DELAYED'- the mellow feel here is quite effective. Again, underplaying is the order of the day. I can easily imagine this stretching out in a live performance, with the individual guitar textures given room to breathe.
- 'MAYBE SOMEDAY'- leading in with an off-kilter beat, before settling into a more standard four on the floor beat. The middle section combines both patterns and nudges the tempo a wee bit.
As a co-write with all band members credited for the arrangement, this has a great range of texture and, God bless, a lovely line of ' tapping' in the outro.
- 'REMIND ME' - this one brings some funk to the party, before branching into some dreamy PROG worthy of a ' THE PINEAPPLE THIEF” chorus, and then…...Ummm, some chaos, and good grief have DREAM THEATRE just high-jacked the session….?
Raging, clipped metal guitars, and, do my ears deceive me, double bass drums being kicked within an inch of damage?
Turn this one up. No, louder. That's better!
- 'YOU AND YOU ALONE' - O.K. - here's the quiet one to catch the breath with.
Lovely acoustic guitar, simple vocal with a declaration of timeless love, for each other and for the progeny.
- 'FORKS' - an upbeat track with a very tight two voice vocal line by Brendan and Joel that would have the Everly Brothers nodding approval. This one has an exhilarating mix of acoustic and electric guitars.
- 'SPEAK UP'- here's the funk back again. Noted reeds man Joshua Redman lends a hand with some tasty saxophone embellishments. The percussion lines here are of necessity, precise and cutting. Was drummer KRISS MYERS listening to a bit of prime Billy Cobham somewhere along the line?
A lesser percussionist just could not keep this complicated arrangement together.
- 'PIRANHAS' - this track moves into an altogether darker feel. The rolling bass line, chunky, clipped guitars and measured vocal all up to something subtly propulsive.
This one will raise the roof in concert. Very powerful. ' Piranhas' could build to twice the length and have you wanting more. Sublime and a definite future live classic. Respect.
- 'DARK BRUSH' - last track kicking in. Inventive hard rock, knowing exactly where it comes from, but pushing forward as well. This could sit on Jerry Cantrell's' brilliant 1998 “BOGGY DEPOT” album, and no one would be the wiser.
Confession time: I knew of this band, but never got around to checking them out. I'll be honest here, the band name put me off. How many bands have I turned a deaf ear to because they chose a crap name?
Answer- quite a few.
So, it was with a little trepidation that I agreed to have a listen.
By the third track, I was won over.
By the time “REMIND ME” blasted through the speakers I was a believer.
These guys show their love of the past fifty years of rock and use it to craft their own take on modern rock: a mix of styles and invention not beholding to the anodyne corporate rock world.
With their impressive light show and top-notch sound system, they would make a killing on the Aussie live circuit.
They are also one of the most fan-friendly bands operating. Check out their website to see the range of ways in which they engage with their audience.
British PROG legends MARILLION have used a similar business model for many years.
The album is available as CD/DOUBLE VINYL/DL.
Thanks to the band, StereoNET has a copy to give away. Have a listen to the album via Spotify (link above) and tell us your favourite song in forum discussion thread here. We'll choose one lucky winner.
A walking encyclopedia of music, David’s broad music knowledge is a valued member to the team. Without music, there would be no HiFi. Look out for his words on current, past and future music, as well as album reviews.
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