By Haig Assadourian
The latest studio release from Umphrey's McGee makes a statement: they are not a jamband. Yes, their proclivity to progressive chord chaos in live shows may have suggested that they could ably fill the shoes left by Phish's departure from the scene, but their latest release is a thoughtful, song-oriented exposition of tracks typically clocking under five minutes each. Leave the guitar noodling to others this time around. This collection is grounded in emotional delivery and structured atmospherics.
Some familiar live tunes, "Believe the Lie" and "Ocean Billy," make their studio debut accompanied by excellent original compositions threaded together with a decidedly melancholic set of lyrics. “Rocker”'s slide guitar accompanies the sober moans of Brendan Bayliss telling us that no matter how much effort you put into something, "Life can take it from you anyway." The emotional honesty in these themes of mortality, loss, and regret lend a timeless quality to the top-notch guitar melodies from Jake Cinninger and Joel Cummins' keyboard soundscapes.
The most distinctive tune of the album, "Liquid" flows with kaleidoscopic melodies reminiscent of XTC's (or perhaps their Dukes of Stratosphere alter-egos') best work, portraying an adult's introspection that evolves into a dream-like climax. UM's signature power-chord progressions and vocal deliveries are still present in tracks like "Words," but I found the overall musical variety in this release to be remarkable.
In what turns out to be a pleasant surprise, MTV grand-daddy Huey Lewis contributes his harmonica and vocals to
"Women, Wine & Song," which is one of the few feel-good songs in the collection that advocates the pursuit of the best things in life. The other guest musician, Joshua Redman, contributes his sax to "Intentions Clear," filling out the song with rich texture and tasty little solo riffs.
The contemplative mood also permeates “End of the Road”'s guitar instrumental and "Passing"'s ambient tale of personal scars. "Ocean Billy," the penultimate song on the album, has been in UM's live repertoire for quite some time. Its power drumming is wrapped by gentle studio strings. "The Weight Around" is a heavy (pun intended) ballad finale that emotes personal loss. The acoustic guitar introduction reminds one of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here." So it may be no coincidence that Storm Thorgerson, who designed that and other Floyd album covers, lent his talent to this cover sleeve as well.
Safety in Numbers is a big step forward in UM's maturity, offering fans and newcomers a solid collection of songs that satisfies the spirit with emotional content and delivers impeccable musicianship to keep your ears happy and your brain buzzing.
JamBase | Colorado
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