In Brief: A musical grab bag, but a consistently fun one. Rounded out with a few bonus instrumentals, this album is an excellent way to get acquainted with Umphrey’s McGee.
In the current state of popular rock music, it’s hard to find genres as easily misunderstood as “prog rock” or “jam band”. I could think of some genres that are more quickly reviled by critics and the general public alike, but those are two that tend to get misinterpreted. I’ll admit that my preconceived notions contribute to the problem. When I think of “prog rock”, I think of bands who can draw songs out to ridiculous lengths with lengthy solos by every single member and ridiculous time signatures just for their own sake, often to the point where the song collapses under its own weight. When I think “jam band”, I think the same thing with fewer change-ups and a lot more repetition (and some really good times to be had for anyone in the crowd who happens to be lighting up during the performance). These ideas are caricatures and stereotypes – things that have been done well by a few bands but have been done poorly by many more.
Umphrey’s McGee, a band from the Chicago area who dabbles in both of these genres, actively seeks to dispel these stereotypes by also dabbling in pretty much whatever the hell genres they feel like on any given day. They’re part of the jam band “scene” but they’re rather uneasy about the label, likely for the reasons mentioned above. A lot of their work is definitely progressive, but they also have a curious ability to sideswipe you with a darn catchy hook and stick with it for the duration of a radio-friendly length song. And all of this while demonstrating some solid musical chops and a bit of innovation in the songwriting department. One minute they’ll be in the middle of a blazing guitar solo and the next, they’ll be turning out some smooth, funky R&B-type stuff. You may not know what type of music to call it when all is said and done, but at some point the roulette wheel is bound to land on a style that puts a big, silly grin on your face. Not quite knowing what to expect next is part of the fun.
Given UM’s vast repertoire (with as much, if not more, live material released than their studio albums, which I guess isn’t surprising for this sort of band), it’s a bit strange than I’ve only just stumbled across them here in the year 2012. They formed at the University of Notre Dame back when I was also in my college years (and what have I done with my life?!), and they’ve kept on truckin’ ever since then, mutating and changing and making sure no two albums are alike. They’re the kind of band that when you hear them, you can tell they’re not necessarily aiming to be the next big thing, nor does it preoccupy them all that much – they seem perfectly comfortable to be a lot of fans’ “best kept secret”. As mentioned above, some of their songs could probably slip into a radio playlist if a DJ felt sneaky enough, but it’d be the kind of thing you might hear on an “album rock” station or one of those hodgepodge stations that doesn’t follow a whole lot of rules. Not knowing any better, I could assume that their latest album title, Death by Stereo, was chosen as a decree that it was their turn to take the airwaves hostage with something fresh and different… or I could assume that it was chosen as a way of saying, “Bending to the whims of radio could be the death of us.” (But more likely, it’s just a way of saying that you’re about to get pummeled with some sweet surround sound.)
Death by Stereo almost feels like the kind of album that’s designed to get a bunch of new listeners up to speed in somewhat streamlined fashion. Having sampled some of their older work (mostly the album Anchor Drops) and realizing how all over the place it can be, Stereo‘s ten tracks can feel like a distillation in comparison. It’s a set of ten songs that goes down smoothly, even seamlessly integrating a few very old live staples into the newer material (which must have been a tricky prospect for fans used to hearing more epic versions of these songs in concert). For a band that prides itself on opening up and seeing where the muse leads them, it’s actually a surprisingly short disc, though the stylistic shifting still leave plenty of intriguing material to get lost in. You can almost look at it as a depot from which you can depart to more out-of-the-way and exotic places on the map. As a brand new fan, this works well for me, though I can also understand why some long-time fans have found it to be a bit too slick or polished compared to the band’s past work. The important thing to me is a solid set of songs – a band that knows what it’s doing can make those songs shine when cursed (blessed?) with a small budget or when blessed (cursed?) with a larger one. From its most upbeat, danceable moments to its moodiest instrumental odysseys and its laid-back moments of acoustic noodling, Death by Stereo passes that test all around, without a weak song in the bunch. Sometimes less is more, I suppose (though if you disagree, I can point you to some mostly worthwhile bonus material).
1. Miami Virtue
The opening track is one of those weird cases where, even though it’s a darn good song, this might not be the first impression of the band that I’d want most people to get. The reason is because it’s so dance-oriented and keyboard dominated that it’s likely to be off-putting to those who expect the more organic, spontaneous vibe which is common in a lot of Umphrey’s songs, and those who initially take a liking to it probably won’t be prepared for the rest of the album to be completely different. It’s a one-off experiment that gets the album off and running in fine fashion, but it might have been better off in the midsection of the album, just to avoid being misleading. Ryan Stasik on bass and Joel Cummins on keyboards do their absolute best to construct a fluid, glitzy groove for the song, while lead guitarist Jake Cinninger and lead singer Brendan Bayliss don’t chime in with their more muscular guitar sound until the bridge. Once they do that and the welcome surprises gives you a small glimpse into the breadth of the Umphrey’s sound, it’s quite brilliant. In a way, this out-of-character moment serves the song’s lyrics well, since they’re all about being young and headstrong and not really understanding the mistakes you’ll later come to regret. In that sense, the band is almost parodying the sorts of poppy singles that more sophisticated rock bands are pressured by labels to come up with. Look back at any number of prog rock acts that survived from the 70s into the 80s and you’ll see a lot of this sort of stuff. It takes an open mind to appreciate this song on more than just a superficial level, but I think I get it.
2. Domino Theory
If the complete genre shift from electronic rock to more of a raw, gritty, The Hold Steady sort of style with the lyrics all spoken and shouted seems a bit jarring, then hey, welcome to the Umphrey’s experience. With its tricky time signature shifts leading from the verse into the chorus, and its muscular riffing, this is a little more characteristic of the band’s signature sound (minus some of the jazz/funk influence that we’ll get to later). Bayliss’s monotone vocals make it sound appropriately rough around the edges, since it’s really more about rhythm than melody. So at times it’s a bit of a rough ride – I appreciate the musicianship, but it’s not as memorable a song as some of the others that merge melody and rhythm so well. The lyrics are suitably ticked off here, as Bayliss is just plain sick and tired of watching someone repeat the same tedious pattern, spiraling down into self-destruction. He sounds like he’s ready to bail on the person before he gets dragged down with them, so the song is really past the point of sympathy for the poor sucker. This is all relayed through a series of colorful analogies, the most pointed of which is “I feel like I’m shopping antiques/It’s the same sh*t, it still stinks.” That’s a rare instance of profanity on an album that mostly avoids it, so if Death by Stereo were a movie, I’d say it could probably get by with a PG rating.
3. Search 4
The longest track on the album (which at six and a half minutes, is actually showing a lot of restraint in this particular genre) is the first to really give you a sense of what this band can do when they leave themselves open to a bit of spontaneity. Cummins’ piano intro in 7/8 time intentionally conflicts with a straight-ahead rhythm of 4/4 that the rest of the band sticks to, and what follows is a beautiful controlled burn full of catchy riffing, generous drum fills, and just enough of a vocal melody here and there to qualify it as a “song” in the conventional sense. It’s a bunch of metaphysical stuff about a person’s quest for more self-respect, sympathy, and understanding, but the lyrics honestly play a secondary role compared to the instruments. The last few minutes of the song are entirely taken up by two brilliant solos – one on bass (which isn’t a common occurrence in modern rock music these days), which gradually builds up from a slow breakdown to a fiery display of fingerwork that’s joined in perfect synchronization with Cinninger’s guitar, which finishes off the song with its own fiery display of technical prowess. Some will see this as your typical prog rock wankery, but I think both instruments are “talkative” enough to give the song a lot of soul even when it isn’t saying anything in plain English.
4. Booth Love
Speaking of “soul”, this is where the band turns a definite corner into the land of funk and R&B, with no apologies for how such a song might sound sandwiched in between two massive rockers. None is needed, because the understated but classy guitar licks and the peppy horn section give it a ton of personality. One of the other guys sings lead here (possibly Cinninger – I’m really not sure since several members sing backup), and I would understand if you assumed that this was the work of a completely different band. Again, I think that’s part of Umphrey’s charm. The lyrics here are abstract, probably there more for mood than to make any clear statement. (Who/what is “booth” and why are you wasting your time if you don’t “give booth some love”? The world may never know.) Thankfully a clear chorus permeates the weirdness: “That should be the last thing on your mind.” The way that the horn section replies to this is one of my favorite moments on the album.
5. The Floor
We switch back to rock mode here for an old live staple that finally got a studio recording. With all of the thrashing riffage going down in this one, I can imagine it being a thrilling concert highlights, full of long buildups and Earth-shaking breakdowns, all tied together by a wandering yet decisively strong vocal melody. “Abstract” is once again the rule as far as lyrics go – everything seems to rhyme but it would surprise me if a lot of these lyrics were improvised on the spot while road-testing the song. The last line of the chorus provides the most fuel for my curiosity: “If waiting is a crime, surely we’ll be fine.” Maybe that’s because the band doesn’t do a lot of lollygagging around on this one – there are a few quiet moments here and there, but those are the moments where you know something’s about to explode or at least get banged around a bit. It’s the heaviest song on the album, a real showcase for both guitarists as well as drummer Kris Meyers and percussionist Andy Farag, and it’s quite easily become my favorite Upmhrey’s track thus far.
This is probably the most conventional “pop” moment on the album. It’s mid-tempo, relatively smooth and laid-back and has the same sort of melodic zip to it as a Hoobastank song. (That may not be the most flattering comparison, but it’s Bayliss’s nasal vocal that makes me think of them.) The keyboards and horns add enough funk influence to keep it from being completely generic, but it’s probably still the weakest link on the album. Lyrically, it’s one of the songs that actually makes the most sense, possibly because it follows a conventional song structure and feels more like complete sentences where one thought leads sequentially into another. It seems to be a dismantling of fair-weather friends, hanger-on who like you just because you seem cool and popular, only to desert you once they find out what you’re really like. This may be autobiographical for band whose success lies mostly in touring and playing to a more mid-sized, but presumably very devoted, niche audience. Their relationship with mainstream rock music would presumably be a bit of a love/hate situation, if I had to take a guess.
7. Dim Sun
At least once per album, it seems like there’ll be one of those come-from-nowhere moments where Jake Cinninger does a little acoustic sideshow. On Anchor Drops, this led to the beautiful country ballad “Bullhead City” and the exquisite epilogue “The Pequod”, both of which where completely out of place but highlights nonetheless. Here, a slow, tense instrumental piece serves as a bit of an intermission, not really connecting to either of the songs around it but just painting a thumbnail sketch of an arid desert on a distant planet. It’s good enough as far as instrumental skill is concerned, but I almost feel like there should be more acoustic moments on the album to help this one play better in context.
This one feels a bit like “Booth Love Part 2”, only more slowed down and “funktified”, and with a string section instead of horns. It’s a curious mesh of a slick groove and dramatic instrumentation, and once again Bayliss sort of vanishes into the group vocals to the point where it sounds like a different band. The lyrics are more fragmented here than anywhere on the album, even to the point where they’re printed with dot-dot-dot at the end of each line in the lyric sheet. Clearly this one’s about taking the scenic route rather than getting to any particular point quickly. That’s OK because of the interesting instrumental bridge that it wanders off into, where the strings all but threaten to overshadow the band. Finally, after a great amount of buildup, they come sliding back into the song, faking you into thinking they’re going to close by repeating an earlier verse and really hammering it home, only to abruptly end the song three words in: “Now it’s time!”
Myers completely owns this one with a solid drum groove – it’s the album’s best mix of the band’s disparate “rock” and “funk” personalities. The twin guitars seem to briefly quote every genre from metal to classic rock to even reggae (!) in the midst of all their noodling and soloing, and yet the song never seems to wander from its well-defined groove and its confident sense of identity. The slinky melody also feels effortless and joyful as it slides up and down the scale, mostly in minor key. The best I can do with the lyrics is that they’re vaguely about tapping into some source of inner energy. This si gonna be one of those songs where you probably keep forgetting the title (it being nowhere in the lyrics and all), but when you hear it again, you’ll remember that it was a lot of fun, whatever the heck it was called.
It’s a risky proposition, taking a fan favorite from your live shows that has been around for almost the entire lifespan of your band, and finally committing yourselves to a studio version. This is especially true when it comes at the tail end of an album that’s a bit of a grab bag (though a remarkably consistent one), and it sounds nothing like the rest of the album. This might be the most radio-ready track on the album, due to its easily identifiable acoustic riff at the beginning and how it quickly explodes into a joyful power ballad only a minute or so in. I get an instant impression of longtime fans and casual new listeners all beaming from ear to ear in perfect unison, because this song has the sort of universality to it that makes it easy to like. (Aside from that whole “remembering the title” problem. It’s Japanese for “Nice to meet you”, for whatever that’s worth. Also, how sad is it that Epinions forced me to censor that?) The lyrics are definitely something that a band could easily use to rally a crowd, since they’re all about taking life’s unexpected trials and rude interruptions in stride, with a sort of stoic determination to make the best of them. It sounds from what I’m saying so far like I really enjoy the song – and in fact I do, so what exactly is my problem? Well, compared to the few live versions that I’ve sampled 9and it’s morphed quite a bit over the years), this one seems to settle for a base hit where it could be a home run. Just shy of four minutes, for a song that’s designed to launch into a long, euphoric guitar solo and some other moments of spontaneous grandeur when played live, feels a bit too safe. It’ll work well enough as a radio edit if the band actually cares about such things, but there’s no reason for them to limit themselves on the album. I understand that ten minutes or longer might be excessive for a studio recording even if it makes perfect sense where you’re there in the moment during a live show. But six or seven would have been more reasonable, and would have given us ample time to make the song feel like a reunion with a cherished old friend, rather than an acquaintance we’re just being introduced to who suddenly remembered another appointment and had to leave in a hurry.
These aren’t on the physical album, but they come with it if you buy it digitally via iTunes. Presumably they’re outtakes that the band didn’t think fit the album all that well. Given Death by Stereo‘s breadth and brevity, I actually disagree in two out of three cases.
Now this is how you do an acoustic instrumental and have it out as a piece worthy of attention as something more than just an interlude. it’s a full band effort, with Cinninger’s finger-picking and Cummins’ piano elegantly leading the way, while the rhythm section gets gradually more intricate as the song comes to life. It’s like watching a new, organic life form get built from the ground up. Perhaps the band felt that it was a bit too conventionally happy-sounding to fit the album, but personally, I think it would have made an ideal lead-in to “Hajimemashite”.
12. We Believe
I’m not sure how the band thought up this more conventionally structured pop/rock track, which appears to be a vague ode to faith. It’s up-tempo and confident, which is a welcome change of pace, but also surprisingly generic compared to what the band’s capable of doing. The guitars are suitably revved up and the band knows how to play a few tricks with the time signature, but aside from that it feels like a straight-ahead radio single from a band that doesn’t make a habit of recording them. To be really honest, it sounds like a mediocre B-side from a Christian rock band. I like a lot of Christian rock bands, but I could think of any number of less memorable Switchfoot songs that I could easily interchange with this one. Umphrey’s isn’t playing to its strengths here.
13. Go to Hell
You can tell from the title that this one’s gonna give you a bit of mood whiplash after those last two tracks. And you’d be right. The band indulges their “metal” side with this final instrumental piece, which is equal parts conventional hard rock riffing and Dream Theater-inspired progressive indulgence. (Seriously, listen to Myers and Farag bang away on their various percussive implements. They’re doing their best Mike Portnoy impression, minus the obnoxious growling.) And it’s a lot of fun, managing to project a bad-@$$ image without saying a word. It’s also quite generous, at five and a half minutes long. I can only imagine that, if placed in the middle of the album, it might have been a bit of a speed bump for some fans. I say it’s their loss.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Miami Virtue $1.25
Domino Theory $1
Search 4 $1.75
Booth Love $1.50
The Floor $1.75
Dim Sun $.75
We Believe $0
Go to Hell $1.50
TOTAL WITH BONUS TRACKS: $15.75
Brendan Bayliss: Lead vocals, guitars
Jake Cinninger: Guitars, backing vocals
Joel Cummins: Piano, keyboards, backing vocals
Andy Farag: Percussion
Kris Myers: Drums, backing vocals
Ryan Stasik: Bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.