If I had approached the new studio album by Umphrey's McGee based solely on the cover I might well not have put the thing in my CD player. A cartoony jumble that attempts to approximate a fictional magazine called The Midwest Chronicle, Local Band Does O.K. comes off at first glance as defensively cute. Openly saying your band is just okay and their soundman aspires to mediocrity makes it easier to deflect any criticism of what lies inside. Such obvious fear of critique makes me worry about the contents even before I hear note one. Despite a name that conjures up an Irish sports bar near a college frat house, Umphrey’s McGee needn’t have worried. They’ve put together a series of very lovely dots that when connected make an even prettier picture.
UM is the kind of band music geeks delight in turning each other onto. Quite unexpectedly this band will grab your ears and give your noggin a concussive shaking. The muscular six string slingers behind their sound should inspire heads to huddle in college dorm rooms and rap endlessly over musky smoke filled candle light. And as any liner note reading, debt-ridden concert slut will confess, it’s a joy to find a new group that rocks your ass so hard you need to tell folks about them. My introduction came in a padded mailer when a trading buddy on the East Coast threw in an Umphrey’s McGee set from last year’s High Sierra Festival. A post-it on the sleeve read, “A little bit B.O.C., a little bit different. Like prog but good.” I found myself playing air guitar like a madman even on the first listen. Their rhythm section from nose to toes popped with undulating snakiness. The electric piano squiggled lines in the air, slashing color across the sky. “Sold!” I cried aloud and bumped the volume up a couple notches. Being alone all I could do was think who I would tell about this band next.
Local Band Does O.K. is likely to induce the same reaction. Despite a penchant for Phish style lyrics and alliteration that mars their own original approach, especially on “Andy’s Last Beer” and “White Man’s Moccassins,” Umphrey’s sound remarkably little like other bands. The technical grace of so many jammers is present but they mold a soundscape that manages to be precise and loose all at once. Tunes start out with odd changes and tricky time signatures but then about 2-3 minutes along one of them notices a path off in the brush and high tails it into the dust. The others find their pocket and snugly settle in and wait to hear what’s been found in the shadows and weeds and wind smooth boulders. Could be someone comes back with a shiny thing or a dead bloated toad. The experience of stepping off the road, the aimless discovery that comes when one’s initial purpose is set aside even momentarily is the reward.
The songs on this latest studio effort comprise the key elements of their live sets, the staples the rest hang upon, giving the outline of a whole sonic vision; one which draws from the hirsute rock of the aforementioned Blue Oyster Cult yet absorbs the manic instrumental mastery & mischievous compositional tomfoolery of Frank Zappa. Odd bedfellows though not so strange that one may wonder why no one had bunked this pair up earlier. Frank, despite his gifts as a guitarist, wore the mantle of rock god poorly. Buck Dharma preens too much (the band's own website states "One of the greatest guitarists of our time" which even if it's true is like calling yourself a genius). Enter Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger, badass pickers but nice guys. Without the strong personalities to contend with it’s easier for the music to come through. That casual anonymity might be the central strength of jam music and of Umphrey’s McGee, too. The relationship with the listener begins not with a publicity shot or a targeted single heard ad naseum. Music itself shakes your hand and the flesh and blood beasts behind it come into focus only later.
Even with two fine guitarists in the front line there’s an overriding feeling of a unified band at work on each song. A burbled electronic bubble floats to the top while congas slap the ground running. A cymbal echoes watery over a slippery bass. Songs tumble into one another and even if the listener didn’t see a segue coming it still feels right. A four song run beginning with “Headphones & Snowcones” and winding down with a tiny instrumental called “The Empire State” hints at the jittery storytelling of Zappa’s Apostrophe. It all has the warmth of some day glow Serengeti Plain broken up by human nests buried along the sweaty green and orange horizon. I would not be at all shocked to find Umphrey’s taking a break from this trail to eat at St. Alphonso’s Pancake Breakfast House, pulling up a chair next to Nanook and dodging yellow snow balls.
The music swings between four to the floor rockin’ and baroque prettiness. Smoke rings abound and something electric courses through the main water supply. Without emulating these bands they capture the spirit that infused Led Zeppelin or even King Crimson back in the day, as the kids say. Soft and hard, balls or bush, it’s all moments in a continuum so why stress about what might be made of it all. This sextet of shredders has more important things to wrestle with, namely a compositional maturity far beyond most acts and a sonic restlessness that feeds newness to the tunes like pellets at a petting zoo. Stroked and well fed their music purrs.
Local Band Does O.K. might well have been called The Young Person’s Guide to Umphrey’s McGee. It’s a primer into a band you want to know more about. You don’t know that yet but you will.
JamBase Bay Area Correspondent
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