In Brief: Another strong release from UM that effectively straddles the line between their jam band noodling and more progressive, exploratory song structures. As usual, the instrumental pyrotechnics and stylistic diversity are a much bigger draw than the lyrics. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
I’ve had an outline of this review sitting in my Drafts for months now. Consider it a case of “analysis paralysis”. The Chicago-based prog rock/jam band Umphrey’s McGee put out a new studio album called It’s Not Us back in January of this year that I thought was pretty darn solid from my very first listen, though it took me a while to get around to digging into the details, meaning I didn’t start on an in-depth review of it until May. As luck would have it, the very week I finally started writing this thing, they dropped another new album called It’s You, apparently as a complete surprise to their fanbase. That perhaps shouldn’t have been enough to bring my thought process to a screeching halt, in terms of writing down the feelings I already had about It’s Not Us. But the two albums had similar cover art, the two titles combined to make a complete phrase, and it seemed like there just might be some grander concept at work here. I decided at that point to hold off on an analysis of the first album until I could wrap my head around the second one. And then that second one turned out to be a hodgepodge of ideas that mostly felt like the first one all over again, with fewer highlights and and lower lowlights. My initial plan to review both albums back-to-back kind of fell by the wayside as I realized that, in addition to the lack of any thematic connection between the actual material on both albums that I could pick up on, I just plain wasn’t interested in doing a deep dive on It’s You. There are a few tracks on it that I think are worth your while and that I’ll briefly address at the end of this review, but the long story short is that I’ve decided It’s Not Us is far more deserving of my attention.
While this album isn’t quite as consistently “All rock, no nonsense” as their previous full-length studio release, 2014’s Similar Skin, it sets the bar almost as high in terms of the quality of musicianship from song to song, while also finding the band willing to branch out genre-wise on a few tracks. It’s not quite the rummage pile of genre-hopping ideas heard on a record like Death by Stereo or Anchor Drops, which is a positive in the sense that this record has a logical flow to it. There are a few moments where a sudden genre shift might take you by surprise, but for the most part, if you’ve heard anything from this band in recent years, you know what you’re getting – muscular rhythms, oddball time signatures here and there, instrumental sections that stretch out long enough to let a few band members show off without veering into truly ridiculous and patience-testing territory, and a pretty good volley of ideas back and forth between dual singers/songwriters/guitarists Brendan Bayliss (who tends to gravitate toward the more jammy, exploratory stuff) and Jake Cinninger (who tends to prefer the grittier, more metal and alt-rock influenced stuff when he isn’t taking a sudden turn into lush acoustic territory). If you’ve heard UM’s music before and you’ve decided it’s best for frat boys getting drunk off their asses at summer festivals, then this probably isn’t going to change your mind, but I’ve always felt that there was more sophistication to their music than might meet the eye, and this record proves my point almost as well as Similar Skin did. It does take a bit of time to get warmed up, delivering some pleasant but mostly interchangeable rockers early on before digging into the more diverse and impressive material at the album’s midpoint. If you’re not getting into this one at first, at least skip ahead and check out tracks 6 and 7 – at that point, I think you’ll have heard enough of the tricks up their sleeve that you’ll know whether you’re hooked or you should cut bait.
And uh, don’t expect a whole lot from the lyrics. They’re pseudo-philosophical in a lot of places, giving most of these tracks a sense that they want to be about something deeper than just rocking out and having a good time, but the words are generally not the focus of most of these songs. Thankfully they saved their most embarrassing lyrical gaffes for a few tracks on It’s You, reinforcing the notion I now have in my head that they chose their A-sides well and their surprise release is really more of a dressed-up B-sides collection masquerading as an album. We’ll get to It’s You eventually – right now I have to remind myself to stop getting distracted by it and stick with the task at hand.
1. The Silent Type
The band makes a choice here, similar to the one they made at the start of Death by Stereo, to lead off the album with more of an electronic, dance-rock type of track. It’s not the type of thing that would immediately clue you in to the breadth of the band’s abilities if this were your first impression of them, but it’s a lot of fun, and I like how well the live rhythm section and guitar licks mesh with the synthetic bass and the pulsating keyboards. Brendan is singing about being hit on by a random woman who uses bumming a cigarette as an excuse to get his attention, and it’s pretty clear she won’t take no for an answer – or at least he isn’t forthcoming enough to bluntly admit he’s not interested. While I can’t say that I relate much to this topic, not being a smoker or an ex-smoker or a member of a rock band who gets hit on by groupies, I think they handle it intelligently enough, making it more about a man’s internal battle between saying what he actually wants to say and just going with the flow to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings than about the raw sexual energy of the encounter (which apparently wasn’t too thrilling from his point of view anyway). I love the Elvis Presley reference in the chorus: “Everybody starts with the same motivation/A little bit of love, a little less conversation.”
This is one of the tracks where Jake sings lead – it seems like more of an excuse to explore a groove for a few minutes than anything with a strong point to make. I like how it bounces back and forth between sort of a syncopated funk-rock vibe and heavier, alt-rock riffing, with some bits of synth thrown in just to make sure it’s completely anachronistic no matter which decade’s influences you try to trace it back to. It’s a fun, nod-your-head sort of composition when I’m listening to it, but I have to admit that I really don’t care one lick what the lyrics are actually about. If there’s a chorus at all here, it seems to be more muttered than sung, so I feel like I spend most of this song waiting for a climactic moment that never quite appears.
3. Whistle Kids
This aptly titled track, with its whistled hook backed by finger snaps, is unlike anything I’ve heard from Umphrey’s McGee to date. It throws me off in a good way by being a mellower song with more of a playful spirit, that still finds room for a lot of instrumental noodling despite backing off from the usual focus on heavier guitars and the rhythm section. Apparently Brendan wrote it based on his experience of having a bad hangover and needing his bandmates to drag him out of bed, because despite whatever epic partying he’d partaken of the night before, the show still had to go on, dammit. It’s not a particularly deep lyric, but it’s a self-aware one that recognizes he only has himself to blame: “I’m a little banged up and I gotta admit/That’s my own fault that I feel like shit/But that doesn’t mean I’ll quit on you today.” The guitar soloing in this one reminds me a bit of something John Mayer might come up with, if John Mayer actually gave a crap about living up to his unearned reputation as a guitarist, at least. (It’s in that general wheelhouse genre-wise, is what I guess I’m trying to say.) We’re 3 for 3 on fun songs at this point, and 2 for 3 on songs where the lyrics tell enough of a coherent story for me to care about them even if I’ve never had similar experiences.
4. Half Delayed
I think it might have been a mistake to put two relatively mellow songs back-to-back here. This one comes drifting in from the fade-out of “Whistle Kids” with a similar mid-tempo pace, but not as strong of a beat to it – it’s one of those songs that floats around for a bit, never quite finding solid ground. The vocal melody is incredibly smooth, which does get my attention, but the instrumentation seems a bit dry by Umphrey’s standards, at least until the dual guitar solo kicks in near the end. That still doesn’t set the song on fire, but it’s a decent enough demonstration of this band’s ability to show restraint while still expressing some sort of emotion through their instruments. I can’t say that I’ve paid a ton of attention to the lyrics on this one, but they do seem to have an interesting premise that doesn’t quite get delved into as much as it could, given that the song mostly exists to lead up to the solo section. Basically it’s about a person being only a shell of themselves, or as the lyrics put it at one point: “You’re never really there when you arrive.” I suppose the song needed to be somewhat elliptical to drive that point home, but I’d have preferred a few more lyrics to help me connect the dots on this one.
5. Maybe Someday
Every song up until this point has been comfortably in the three to three-and-a-half minute range, but now we’re finally getting into the meatier material. This song was a bit of a tough sell for me at this point, because every prog rock-leaning band seems to have at least a few compositions with unusual time signatures merely for their own sake, regardless of how well it fits the lyrics or the instrumentation. This seems like one of those. It’s full of awkward, jumpy stops and starts at first, dropping in a few extra beats and lyrical phrases where it doesn’t quite seem like they flow naturally. And this is coming from a listener who normally likes that sort of thing. There’s definitely a pattern to it that I started to pick up on before too long, but the song doesn’t stick with it consistently enough to make a solid hook out of it. The structure of this song is really interesting, though, because it shifts from its weird, mid-tempo stutter to more of an upbeat instrumental section after the first chorus, making it harder to predict when the song is going to return to the verse or chorus section. This gives the band plenty of room for fun twists and turns over the course of its six and a half minutes. And in addition to the expected guitar solos that show up in the song’s more intense moments, there’s a lot of subtle texturing from bassist Ryan Stasik and percussionists Andy Farag and Kris Meyers that remind me how well this band functions as a cohesive unit – they’re not just there for one or two guys to show off at the front of the pack all the time.
6. Remind Me
The longest track on the album contains a surprise so good that I hate to spoil it… but I kind of have to in order to review the song, so just skip this paragraph if you want to be truly surprised. It starts off with three minutes or so of the expected jam band boogie rock (which there’s probably a better term for, but it’s got the sort of rhythm and guitar licks that make it easy to imagine a crowd of drunken fans who follow them in their vans on tours and stuff happily dancing to, so that’s what I’m gonna go with). That melts into more of an easygoing, melodic chorus as Brendan sings about being a young fool who doesn’t learn his life lessons easily and… well look, these lyrics are not terribly insightful, but they at least set a certain tone for the song that helps to make what happens next a real shock to the system. When the second chorus is over, and you might expect this to go into some sort of a solo based around the same general rhythm and mood that the song has established so far, it instead collapses into squealing guitar feedback, and suddenly there’s a relentless, hammering heavy metal riff that picks up, and the whole band just runs with it for the next several minutes, giving plenty of space for white-hot guitar solos and intense, double bass drum-heavy percussion that rivals a good Dream Theater composition. This is probably the most exciting thing on the album, and while it has literally nothing to do with the song that came before it, having no melodic snippets to serve as a callback to it, and no lyrics whatsoever, it arguably has more an effect due to it being such a jarring change of pace in the middle of a song, than it would have if the song had started out with more of a metal vibe. It’s a schizophrenic song, to say the least, but it’s also one that exemplifies how there’s more to this band than might first meet the eye.
7. You & You Alone
A gentle acoustic ballad would be just about the last thing I’d expect to work after the prog-metal throwdown at the end of that last track, so it’s another testament to this band’s ability to adapt to different musical settings that this not only works, but turns out to be my favorite track on the album overall. Jake Cinninger is a skilled finger-picker, and that’s been made clear on a number of instrumental snippets that I’ve heard on previous albums, but thus far none of the albums I’ve listened to have had an entire song based around it that works as well as this one. It’s not quite as striking of a contrast to a rock/metal band’s usual sound as something like Extreme‘s “More Than Words”, but I guess it’s in that vein – nice vocal harmonies, a little bit of Joel Cummins‘ piano to add to the peaceful atmosphere of it, and I guess there’s some soft bass and percussion as well, but for the most part the focus is just on two guys with their guitars and voices. I’d characterize this as a romantic song, although the lyrical ideas expressed are kind of vague and open to interpretation. Nothing specifically quotable here, but I sure get wrapped up in the sweet sentiment of it when I’m listening to it.
I’ve noticed that a lot of the songs on this album have titles that aren’t based on something from the actual lyrics, but have more to do with the overall concept of the song or perhaps describe the riff or jam session that they grew out of. This one was probably named because it describes a turning point in someone’s life – a fork in the road, I guess – rather than having anything to do with dining utensils. The lyrics are mostly self-help gobbledigook about searching for your inner light – and it sounds so damn triumphant when I’m actually listening to the thing, but reading it back later, I’m like, “Sheesh, this is corny”. It helps that the band goes at it with the fervor of a runner getting his second wind on the last leg of a marathon. The way that the synths intertwine with the guitar and with a speedy drum beat that I am downright fascinated with, makes this song feel like a burst of positive energy just when a person about to give up hope needed it most. Brendan and Jake seem to double-team on the lead vocals here, for the most part, and there’s an exhilarating guitar solo near the end of it that has quite a different character from the heavier or more exploratory solos elsewhere on the album. This song knows that it exists to help you kick your mopey, sluggish ass into gear, and it feels no shame in using all the tools in its arsenal to accomplish that.
9. Speak Up
It’s one thing for Umphrey’s McGee to briefly touch on jazz and funk tropes to give their particular stew of influences a little extra spice. It’s quite another thing for them to attempt a jazz/funk throwback song complete with a saxophonist, and drag it out for six minutes. It’s a legitimate collaboration with jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman, so I’m sure that dude knows what he’s doing here, but it’s still an odd fit even by UM’s standards. It took me a few minutes to realize that I was more annoyed by this song that entertained by it – I don’t mind the sudden genre shift or the peppy mood of it at first, but I’m not sure Brendan’s voice or the band’s overall performance style really fits. But what do I know? They’re dipping into genres in which I have no real expertise. It just seems to take an idea that was initially a lot of fun and run it into the ground by spending a lot of time repeating verse/chorus sections with instrumental solos in between, never really developing into anything that surprises the listener beyond their presumed initial shock at the start of the song.
I like how this song opens, with the deep, fuzzy, ominous rumbling of a bass guitar, sounding like some sort of monster is crawling out of the shadows to sneak up from behind and eat you. I guess that’s a good enough way to open a song that is named after carnivorous fish. This one mostly sticks to its chunky riffing and its straight-ahead 4/4 rock beat – it’s a consistently muscular song with a catchy melodic hook, even if it’s not an immediate standout. The little bits of glistening piano here and there are an amusing counterpoint to the surrounding heaviness. I like how even the most straightforward genre exercises that this band does usually color at least a little bit outside the lines in some fashion.
11. Dark Brush
The album’s final track is an impressively heavy one, not quite as technically astounding as the second half of “Remind Me”, but convincingly menacing due to Jake’s brooding verses and his deep-throated growl in the chorus: “Then you crept through my back door!” He seems to describe someone who is downright pissed off at him as a lurking monster waiting for revenge, which I suppose fits well with the theme of “Piranhas” even though this one is musically quite different. Much like “Little Gift” and especially “Hindsight” on Similar Skin, it’s a reminder that Jake is a lover of both classic heavy metal and 90s alt-metal influences, and he brings both together in a powerful way to close the album, with the slow but heavy grind of the song leading to a number of headbang-worthy moments as the song bangs and crashes its way toward the final guitar solo section that shuts everything down at the end.
Now, I did promise at least some brief thoughts on It’s You, so I’ll just stick those here, I guess. It’s a 10-track album, bringing the grand total of songs released from these fruitful sessions to 21, though I’d definitely consider the short and rather rude acoustic anthem “Hanging Chads” to be a throwaway – it’s the most intentionally stupid thing I’ve heard from the band thus far, and it’s evidence that they didn’t really have an entire second album’s worth of material on their hands after picking 11 tracks for the main event. I’d say most of the rock jams on that record that follow in the general style of It’s Not Us are serviceable, but not terribly memorable. I hate to say this when they’re clearly trying to think outside the box with their arrangements on several occasions, but it almost feels like they’ve got their own formula down at this point, so there aren’t very many moments on It’s You I can point to and say “Now that is an exceptional riff/hook/chorus/solo” like I could so many times on It’s Not Us. “Nether” definitely stands out due to Jake’s pseudo-death metal growl – it’s not quite a convincing fusion of styles, but it’s an entertaining one akin to their bizarre cover song mashups heard on Zonkey. My favorite moments on It’s You are actually two of the outliers – the instrumental “Xmas at Wartime” with its militant snare drums and its surprisingly peaceful piano melody, and the expansive closer “Upward”, which morphs beautifully from quiet acoustic noodling into a euphoric grand finale. I’d take the latter as a closing track on It’s Not Us, bringing the final track count to 12 – I mean, I guess you could insert “Xmas” in there somewhere as a breather between some of the harder-driving material too, but “You and You Alone” already serves that purpose quite well, and a holiday instrumental it would feel a bit out of left field no matter where the band put it, so I’m fine with leaving it as a B-side.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Silent Type $1
Whistle Kids $1.25
Half Delayed $.75
Maybe Someday $1.25
Remind Me $1.75
You & You Alone $1.75
Speak Up $.50
Dark Brush $1.50
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: