By: Brian Heisler
The Bottom Half is Umphrey's McGee's first b-sides effort, but make no mistake, this two-disc set is more than just outtakes. At first glance, this is a great piece for the tireless fans who've made Umph's a touring sensation but maybe something the average listener wouldn’t appreciate. But, don't judge this book by its cover, even if it is by celebrated cover artist Storm Thorgerson.
The Bottom Half is a journey through Umphrey's McGee's recording process, where old tunes are reworked and previously unreleased tracks like “Red Room,” “Home,” “Never Cease,” “Fresh Start,” and "Alex's House" surface, however many of these new cuts are already being played in concert. In fact, frontman Brendan Bayliss had said "Alex's House" would just be for live shows. The song is perfectly simple, catchy and a great sing-along to try out your best falsetto on. "Red Room" brings lead guitarist Jake Cinninger to the mic. The song measures up to past Cinninger vocal efforts like "Liquid" and "Women Wine and Song." Maybe the most interesting part of The Bottom Half is the dialogue before the final take of "Red Room" on the second disc tagged "Red Room Disco," where Bayliss jokingly suggests they do a disco album.
Several songs from last year's Safety In Numbers repeated here have subtle but notable differences. For example, "Intentions Clear" adds saxophone from Joshua Redman. The second disc is loaded with alternate takes, such as a cappella version of "Words" and a solo version of "Believe the Lie" featuring Brendan Bayliss on electric guitar and multitracked vocals. Instrumental takes and studio chatter provide insights as to creative atmosphere around Safety In Numbers.
A number of songs have been played live but never released on an album, most notably "The Bottom Half" and "Bright Lights, Big City." The title track is an excellent recording with Zappa-like horns from Jeff Coffin (Bela Fleck and the Flecktones), but the most impressive piece on the album is "Bright Lights, Big City." The smooth, poppy tune might fool a few outsiders into thinking it's a new Peter Gabriel song. Umphrey's McGee has never been one-dimensional. They don't lean one way or the other in their music. "Bright Lights, Big City" is exactly the type of thing that could eventually propel Umphrey's McGee into headlining arenas.
Also worth noting is "Atmosfarag" (named for percussionist Andy Farag), a slow, melancholy electronic head-bobbing classic, which functions as a recurring theme throughout the album. It includes a seemingly old vinyl recording of a formal welcome to "The Browning Family." This is likely the handiwork of "sound caresser" Kevin Browning, the band’s longtime soundman.
The Bottom Half may be an odds and sods collection primarily made up of leftovers from Safety In Numbers but it's also an inside view on one of the hottest bands in the country. Umphrey's McGee's success is only beginning, and The Bottom Half is a blueprint for that success.
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