In Brief: A surprisingly tight and focused studio record from a band known for their extended soloing and somewhat arbitrary genre-hopping. It’s worth getting over any preconceived notions that you may have about “jam bands”, because this is a meaty collection of songs worth a listen for anyone who enjoys listening to a good rock band play the hell out of their instruments.
Umphrey’s McGee is probably one of those bands that gets what it asks for in terms of publicity. They’ve got a goofy name that shows they don’t take themselves all that seriously, and they’ve done enough “taking it wherever it goes” in terms of both their chosen genre and the structure of any given song over the years that the “jam band” tag is probably going to stick with them forever. I don’t think it’s an embarrassing or inaccurate descriptor, personally, but it’s a term that’s going to send some potential listeners scurrying, particularly if you’re prone to imagining large crowds of bros and hippies boogying on some sun-baked lawn after tapping one too many kegs when you hear it. It’s not entirely fair, since I think it takes a fair amount of musical know-how and also the keen ability to read your bandmates in order to perform in such a loose, spontaneous fashion. But it’s a genre that can also impose weird limitations on a band, making it difficult for folks like me with more “pop” sensibilities to tell where a song ends and the noodling around on their instruments begins. For those enjoy extended jams stretching into the double digits time-wise, it puts a bit of a stranglehold on studio albums, too, with the “official” recordings often acting more as blueprints for the vastly-preferred live performances. Attempt to record something more concise that doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to extended riffing, and your fanbase may well revolt against it. I accepted this as the reason why an Umphrey’s album in the past might have seemed all over the place with no real cohesion – it wasn’t meant to be a self-contained listening experience from front to back so much as a teaser for what you might get if you went to see them live. But this time around, they seemed determined to shed a lot of the flotsam and jetsam and record an album that bridged that gap between the pristine studio environment and the unpredictable, messy live environment. I’m happy to say that with Similar Skin, the group has mostly succeeded at both sides of this equation.
What’s especially interesting about Similar Skin is how some of its discarded ideas ended up shaping the record and bringing it into focus. First off, there’s the title. It’s mildly suggestive, but compared to the super-aggressive title that the band was originally considering (one of the guys wanted to call it We’d F*ck Us – no joke!), it’s a smart move, implying a more intimate connection between things that might seem superficially different from each other. All six band members were involved in the songwriting, with lead singer Brendan Bayliss leading the charge on most of them while guitarist Jake Cinninger contributed a few pieces of his own design (which in particular are harder rocking than anything I’ve heard from the band before). This helps the album to still feel somewhat diverse – there really aren’t any two songs that I would confuse with another, despite the more cohesive attempt to make sure this album rocks out from beginning to end. Pieces that were originally conceived as instrumental jams and road-tested as such were rearranged a fair amount as they got lyrics written. A few songs were extended as band members got flashes of inspiration, while a few were purposefully truncated when the band realized it wasn’t necessarily to force spontaneity where they had a good structure that took you from a well-defined beginning to a satisfying end. You can hear hints of the band’s fondness for funk and R&B on a few tracks, but it doesn’t feel like they’re abruptly jumping back and forth between those genres and rock like it did on 2011’s Death By Stereo. Even though I wouldn’t say that the record puts its strongest material right up front like Stereo did, I think the band was smart to lure us in with a few tracks that hover closer to radio length (without necessarily being “radio-friendly”, at least not in terms of making it sound anything like what’s popular on mainstream radio nowadays), before digging into the more involved and “progressive” material further in. That’s where some of my favorite material happens to live, but really, there isn’t a single dud on the entire project. It’s a welcome change from the usual top-heavy rock record where a band starts to run out of steam and pile on the mid-tempo ballads more and more as the back half wears on. I’d say there’s precisely one track on this disc that sticks to “ballad tempo” throughout, and it was designed as such, but even there, they don’t slouch on the guitar heroics.
Now while I’m not typically drawn to progressive rock or jam bands for the lyrics, I will say that Umphrey’s leans more toward the introspective and intriguing end of the scale than the goofy end on this album. That’s no small feat considering that these genres lend themselves quite easily to lyrics that are either totally pretentious or else just sort of an afterthought, an excuse for the singer to do something while the band is warming up for another round of soloing. I wouldn’t say that anything here is life-changingly profound, but they manage to tackle subjects such as death, religion, parenthood, and possibly even drug abuse throughout these 11 songs without it ever sounding anvilicious or out-of-character. Even when I think the group is pushing their luck a bit on the armchair philosophizing, it becomes clear that the song in question is actually presenting two conflicting viewpoints, both of which have their fair points and their unfair assumptions. I suspect how you perceive the intent behind a lot of it will depend on how you perceive the two vocalists – Brendan can seem a bit nasal and cynical at times, while Cinninger has the whole “90s alt-rocker growl” thing going on. But when the whole gang throws in a chorus vocal to support a deliciously unpredictable melody that’s been penned by one or more of them, it’s downright sublime. Most importantly, the “wordless” sections of a lot of these songs do a great job of communicating a mood that totally falls in line with the lyrics. You can feel the tension between two people as the lead guitarists fight it out in one spot, while soaring with them both in perfect harmony on a much more optimistic song later on.
Long story short, UM has a serious contender for my favorite album of the year here. That’s pretty amazing, considering that what I would have expected going in was a smorgasbord of fun little instrumental curiosities that in no way needed to relate to or segue into one another. Getting a solid album with some sense of completion to it from these guys is a heckuva a nice bonus.
1. The Linear
As much as I enjoy this album, I feel like it’s missing a beginning, because the slow fade-in of this song makes it feel like it wants to be the second track or somewhere deeper in. I suppose that’s fitting for a track that developed out of an instrumental jam that the band hadn’t fully decided how to start or finish until Brendan started singing over it as an experiment, transforming it into an actual song. I enjoy the general feeling of mystique that comes from holding back on the guitars and allowing a pretty cool bass riff and a flowing piano melody to lead the way – it makes us anticipate the payoff when the lead guitar shows up and sets the song ablaze. Brendan’s vocal delivery reminds me of the last album’s opener “Miami Virtue” in terms of its overall mood and timing – imagine a more laid-back version of that song’s groove minus the electronic elements, and you’ve got a good sense of how this one will unfold. It’s a weird start, but it’s a solid song.
2. Cut the Cable
Speaking of getting things off to a weird start, this track sounds like a raggedy demo version itself at the beginning, when it’s just Brendan’s voice and the simple strum of an acoustic guitar. While I appreciate a glimpse into the creative process every now and then, this hurts the flow of an album that’s already got some pacing problems early in its track listing. Once we get past that, we’ve got a solid, brooding rocker on our hands, brought into full technicolor by the lead guitar’s jackhammer riffs, which deliberately contrast with the rhythm guitars more evenly measured power chords. It’s got 90s alternative metal written all over it, especially with the chorus lamenting “I’m closer to my coffin now”, but they’ve spliced their exploratory jam band tendencies into it in interesting ways, allowing the guitars to go off on their rapid-fire flights of fancy without it detracting from the navel-gazing mood of the song. The group vocals really help the chorus to stand out – it’s one of the sturdiest on the album, and while it might be a bit odd for such a rumination on one’s impending death to become such an audience sing-along sort of moment, it adds a sort of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” sort of urgency to the proceedings.
It’s hard to be both progressive and concise at the same time – usually something’s got to give, and a band known for their exploratory tendencies usually suffers when trying to keep a song’s length to rock radio constraints. Here, that’s not a problem. The shifting time signatures of this song’s opening riff and its verse are at once a curious and instantly catchy thing, and when it smooths out into an even-tempered chorus in 4/4, it’s like all of those different-sized gears all spinning at their own rates have fallen into lockstep and are now performing as one lean, mean machine. The lyrics are a bit of a puzzle to me here, suggesting some sort of an argument, perhaps a moment of truth where the writer realizes he can be a bit of a blowhard, speaking before he thinks and not giving his tongue-tied opponent the chance to work out his own internal dialogue before responding. I’m either barely scratching the surface with that one, or else just reading into words that were mostly improvised to fit the flow of the song’s off-kilter rhythm. Either way, the true highlight of this one is the dueling guitar solo that bounces back and forth in your speakers before coming to an agreement as they escalate toward a sudden ending. One gets the feeling that the band could have jammed on this for longer – and they probably do in concert – but here it’s an exercise in saying what you need to say and then showing off a little bit without getting so distracted that it bogs down the overall flow of the album.
4. No Diablo
The one song that truly deviates from the guitar-dominated nature of this album is also, in my opinion, a bit too early in the tracklisting. It’s a bouncy, piano-driven pop song that sounds like it came crashing in from a whole ‘nother decade – this sort of thing would be par for the course on a few of the band’s previous albums (and at times the sudden genre shifts have led to a few of my personal favorites, such as Death By Stereo‘s “Booth Love”), but it’s a bit of an oddball here. Fittingly, this was one of those songs that the band played around with for a while and almost scrapped due to feeling that it didn’t fit, but after a number of rewrites, they finally gained enough confidence in it to find it worthy of a bigger audience. I’m good with it, even if I personally would have put it somewhere in the back half of the album. Here Brendan plays the “wise but cool uncle” to Jake’s newborn son, giving him one of those “you’ll understand this when you’re older” sorts of pep talks, which may sound cheesy with its quips about morality and not making room for the devil, but it’s done playfully enough to make it feel more casual than heavy-handed. While Joel Cummins is the clear standout here for the way he bangs out those piano chords, the guitars whimsically follow the twists and turns in the melody just to give it that slight sense of well-meaning mischief, and I love the tag-team chorus, which shows off an interplay not normally heard between the band’s lead and backing vocalists.
5. Similar Skin
The title track on this album is a home run – from its tribal drum opening to its graceful guitar solo outro. Like “Hourglass”, it morphs from a lopsided groove into a straightforward chorus, but there’s something special about the way this one unfolds, how its chorus melody seems to meander in search of resolution at first and then finds it later, and how the band gives it room to breathe with the more relaxed tempo and longer run time (remarkably, it’s the first track on the album to go over five minutes), but without dropping the ball on the musical action, thanks to the guitar riffs and solos finding that perfect space to inhabit somewhere in between “primal” and “heavenly”. The lyrics aim for a very broad “We’re all the same underneath” sort of sentiment, which I’m not going to pretend is all that original or insightful, but there’s something incredibly appealing about the optimistic, “Don’t sweat the small stuff”-type attitude present here. I almost wish the band had started the album with this one. It’s the title track and it’s gripping right from the beat of the first drum, so why not?
6. Puppet String
With two tracks in a row pushing past the six-minute mark, we’re getting deeper into the sort of material that I would imagine separates the casual listeners from the diehards. While this song has a bit of a long fade-in and its verses are a bit subdued, it never feels aimless, giving bassist Ryan Stasik a chance to flex his musical muscles before each verse and scaling nearly everything back to make sure the lyrics stand out in those verses. Lyrics often seem secondary in UM’s world, but here they’re from and center, as Brendan tries to see both sides of a conversation between a religious person and a skeptic, both making reasonable points about how the other has just sort of accepted a premise that’s been told to them without fully considering the other point of view. I’ve heard a fair amount of songs in this genre that let the singer get up on a soapbox about whatever he wants to convince us is or isn’t out there, so to seek some balance between these disparate voices and to humbly admit “What the hell do I know?” is refreshing – he’s trying to inhabit the conversation rather than tell us the answers. The quiet introspection doesn’t mean there’s no room for instrumental prowess, of course – the guitars loom large over the chorus and the light percussive touch that inhabits the song early on builds up into a thundering climax by the time it’s over.
7. Little Gift
Switching vocalists for a song or two can often feel like switching to a completely different band, since Jake Cinninger’s got a much deeper voice than Brendan’s, and it’s well-suited for muscular alternative rock. The guitar-heavy approach so far makes this much less jarring than it otherwise would be, but man, he just goes to town on this one, taking what might sound like a fist-pumping rock anthem and sarcastically subverting it with his little whispers and sneers. I’m honestly not sure what the hell this one’s about – it’s borderline goofy at times with its chorus declaring, “Are you lonely? Can you show me? Rock and roll me, you know me, so show me!” Vocally and instrumentally, it’s an intimidatingly loud performance, with its only weak link (other than your potential reaction to the lyrics, I guess) being the weirdly casual piano that glides into the end of the verse right before the band goes full-throttle RAWK in the chorus.
8. Educated Guess
I think I like these guys’ lyrics the most when they take a step back from the broad philosophizing and hone in on something specific. Even if the specificity is rather weird. Case in point is this song, a nervous little beast of a performance that navigates several hairpin turns back and forth between hyperactivity and an uneasy sense of control. It’s fitting for a tale about a guy who popped a few Ambien and then insisted on staying awake, and is now trying to make sense of the bizarre goings on around him that may or may not be resulting from his brain telling him it’s time to shut down for the night and protesting his resistance more and more loudly. I love how part of this song has rapid-fire lyrics and just sort of ticks away like a clock on fast-forward, while the other part falls into this purposeful drudgery, mining a heavy, one-note guitar riff for longer than it should be possible to do so and still keep an audience’s attention. The many melodic twists and turns help, as does an agitated string section that gets brought into highlight the bridge of the song. Percussionists Kris Meyers and Andy Farag go absolutely nuts with it at the end, dovetailing with the manic strings, and there’s so much going on that this one never seems to drag despite its near six-minute length.
9. Loose Ends
This might be the lone “power ballad” on the album, the moment where they slow down the tempo enough and keep it evenly throttled for the entire song with no weird tricks up their collective sleeves. It’s the sort of song that they knew the album needed even though they have no real intention of playing it live a whole lot – I think it’s smart when a band can recognize the difference between the balance that a studio album needs to demonstrate and the energy that a live show needs to maintain. The guitars are still loud and proud here, the chorus is melodic and downright huge, and there’s a bit of a “sensitive man’s hair metal band” sort of feel to it, which I know must sound like an awful insult, but I think it’s just a(n) homage to some of their personal musical heroes. It’s definitely a heart-on-sleeve type of song, one in which Brendan pleads for someone on the verge of leaving to stick around and help him work out his issues. The verses will probably sag for some listeners who prefer the rock action, but there’s a quiet beauty to the chord progression and its habit of switching from major to minor key at all the right gut-punching moments.
Jake’s back in front of the mic here, for the hardest rocking song I’ve heard UM do yet. It’s not “hard” in the speedy, thrash metal sort of sense – it’s actually got a slow, heavy groove like something straight out of the 90s. Where his vocal approach seemed a bit flippant in “Little Gift”, here it’s a downright menacing roar, and I have to say I like the effect. The rest of the band admirably supports this bit of role-playing (and dude’s worn a number of genre hats over the years – think back to the country song he whipped out on Anchor Drops), and while the show of brute force without as much room for instrumental noodling seems unlike them at first, I do think it’s in the band’s nature to make sure every instrument gets a little emphasis, and this one definitely follows the alternative rock aesthetic of emphasizing rhythm guitar over lead. The lead gets a brief, white-hot solo at the end, which after a few stops and seething growls earlier in the song, has me half expecting another round of scratchy palm-muting and percussion so loud that it sounds like someone’s made gongs out of sheet metal. But nope, that’s the actual end of the song.
The final track is probably the one that sounds most familiar to longtime fans of UM – this is where they set aside the go-for-the-throat approach that they’ve preferred on most of the album, and instead rip into one of their classic jam sessions for a good nine minutes. Like a few of the highlights from their previous album, this is a song that they’ve workshopped in their live shows over the years, and it makes no attempt to hide its origins as a few pieces of different improvisational bits tacked on to one another, flipping back and forth between moods Frankenstein-style until it all comes together in a pyrotechnic finale. The opening of this track is pretty much the band showing off their ability to play in weird time signatures for its own sake – I’m a sucker for that sort of thing, but I’m sorry if I betrayed you earlier by hinting that there would be none of that sort of thing here. It soon settles into a 4/4 groove with the guitars deliberately following their own separate rhythm, ringing out like a siren warning the rest of the band that they’re headed the wrong way. This is where the song’s only lyrics show up – a scant two verses separated by a whole lot of instrumentalizing. I’m not gonna even pretend I understand them, since they too are probably improvisational in nature, so I’ll just skip ahead to my one real complaint with the song, which is the “cooler” groove that it slips into midway through, which purposefully has the drums hitting after where you’d expect to be, which creates some fun syncopation once you get used to it, but there’s such an obvious gap in between the two sections of the song that you’re likely to think the CD skipped when the mp3 file was being encoded or something. It may well have been intentional, but it sounds like the aural equivalent of a director shooting the back of an actor’s head while dialogue they rewrote later is dubbed over whatever they originally said. It just isn’t a good way to edit together what sounds like parts of two different recording sessions. Second time they go through that transition, it’s surprisingly less jarring. The rest of the song is golden, going through a few cycles of heating back up, cooling down again, and then finally launching into a heart-pounding race toward the finish line, the guitars nervously jumping about with repetitive but adrenaline-inducing precision. When it finally comes to an end, it’s quite sudden (which I really should expect given how so many of these other tracks have ended), and I’m expecting more, but honestly, there’s no place this bizarre beast of a song could have gone but at the tail end of the album.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Linear $1.25
Cut the Cable $1.25
No Diablo $1.25
Similar Skin $2
Puppet String $1.25
Little Gift $1.50
Educated Guess $1.75
Loose Ends $1
Brendan Bayliss: Guitar, lead and backing vocals
Jake Cinninger: Guitar, lead and backing vocals
Joel Cummins: Keyboards, backing vocals
Andy Farag: Percussion
Kris Myers: Drums, backing vocals
Ryan Stasik: Bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: