eAs a band, Umphrey’s McGee has always attempted to push the proverbial envelope. Emerging as a powerhouse jam band from the Midwest in the late 1990s, the band has worked hard to circumvent the trappings of their genre. Their now-famous live shows whip the audience from one genre to another, from alternative rock to jazz, to metal and funk, and then back again. They fuse their wide-ranging influences to form one of the most unique sounds in modern improvisational music.
Through the years, this growth has shown in the band’s recorded output, with each new record a reflection of their ever-evolving sound. With their new record, it’s not us, released Friday, January 12th, Umphrey’s McGee—who are celebrating their 20th anniversary as a band in 2018—delivers another musical statement. The album successfully captures their contemporary live sound and the world-class musicianship that defines the group while also showcasing a new level of maturity in their songwriting, weaving back and forth between genres while remaining centered on the progressive sound that they’ve honed over their twenty-year career. it’s not us offers up some of the best and most versatile songwriting that the band has ever laid down on tape. UM’s ability to mix dynamic sounds and vibes with ultra-tight instrumentation, intricate harmonies, and, of course, soaring guitar solos is ultimately quite similar to their live show.
You can take a listen to Umphrey’s McGee’s new album that dropped today, it’s not us, below. Read on after the break for a full review and full thoughts on the album.
It comes as no surprise that Umphrey’s McGee would lead off it’s not us with “The Silent Type”, a song that has grown out of several of the band’s patented “Jimmy Stewart” improvisation segments. The band actually released a timeline to show just how “The Silent Type” has evolved out of (what was known by fans as) the “Cig Stew” starting back in 2011, which hardcore fans can check out below. The deliberate choice to open this record with a song that reflects years of hard work shines a light on the band’s overall theme of evolution on it’s not us.
Evolution of Umphrey’s McGee’s “The Silent Type”
[Video: Umphrey’s McGee]
Umphrey’s McGee’s sound has certainly shifted towards a heavier, more hard-rock feel in the past few years, and the relentlessly work-shopped “The Silent Type” is a perfect encapsulation of the hard work and effort that the band has put into this active shift in their sound. The song itself—a pulsating rocker with a synth bass lead and aggressive vocals from Bayliss—continues the 1980s-era sound that the band has trended towards over the past few records. Brendan Bayliss’ strong vocals match Kris Myers’ driving drumbeat, while guitar wizard Jake Cinninger leaves his mark all over the track, filling in the blanks tastefully throughout with epic runs up and down the neck of his guitar.
The evolutionary feel that flows throughout it’s not us continues on track two, “Looks”. This track marks a huge shift toward industrial rock, a sound that is cemented by tribal-sounding drums and the use of a Nine Inch Nails-esque filter over Cinninger’s vocals. This track has Cinninger’s fingerprints all over it, specifically the trademark guitar squeals and scratches he implements to add to the track’s overall dissonant feel. His off-center solo towards the end of the track cements this as one of his best contribution to the Umphrey’s McGee catalog. “Looks” works in a big way, and one can only imagine that it will soon become a live favorite.
The band swings from industrial to blues with the album’s third track, “Whistle Kids”, which quickly settles into a dream-state groove. The song’s looped whistling harkens back to the band’s “Off The Hip” improvisational set with Joshua Redman back in January of 2016. Umphrey’s McGee has always shown a knack for nailing complicated harmonies on their records, and “Whistle Kids” is another moment where the band’s hard work has paid off in that department. “Whistle Kids” shows the band taking a restrained approach, and it serves as a nice breather before the real progressive meat of the album kicks in.
The groove-centric power-ballad “Half Delayed” qualifies as the go-to example of the mature songwriting featured on it’s not us. The song is concise and has an ethereal, groove-centric vibe that shifts up a few gears during a soaring bridge and syncopated chorus. Bayliss’ restrained vocals and Cinninger’s short-but-fiery solo bookends the three-minute-and-thirty-six-second stand-out track. While “Half Delayed” may be short, it packs a serious punch, with Kris Myers delivering the goods in a starring role on the drumkit, helping to create the song’s interesting and ever-shifting vibe.
While “Half Delayed” is short and to the point, the album’s fifth track, “Maybe Someday”, wastes no time stretching things out and getting down and dirty. “Maybe Someday” is this album’s progressive-rock classic, with a shapeshifting time signature and multiple unique sections flowing into each other, combining wailing guitar, catchy hooks, and a perfectly-utilized, frenetic string section. Like many other songs on this album, “Maybe Someday” contains elements that have been road-tested at live shows from year’s past, with the lyrics over the song’s wild bridge appearing at the band’s “Making Lemonade” show in St. Augustine, FL on 4/11/2015. “Maybe Someday” is an expansive journey that will surely provide many nooks and crannies for the band to stretch out and improvise in the live setting. This song simply sounds like the total Umphrey’s McGee experience, especially the intense closing stanza, complete with an absolutely raging guitar solo from Cinninger. This is likely to be the fan-favorite off it’s not us.
When fans saw that “Remind Me”—a song that’s been in the band’s live rotation for several years at this point—had made the cut for it’s not us, they rejoiced, as the bi-polar funk/metal rager has become a live staple since its debut in 2015. The song opens on a funky rock guitar, which locks in with a bouncy groove and some great underlying tones from keyboardist Joel Cummins. The song has a very poppy sound with accessible vocals, guitar, and drums, but that quickly dissolves away into extreme dissonance, with Cinninger once again utilizing scratching and screeching guitar sounds to transform the song into what is easily Umphrey’s McGee’s most intense metal that they have ever put on to record. The double-bass-pedal-laden drums drive the section forward, while Cinninger and Bayliss go absolutely crazy on their guitars, locking in for an unprecedented and prolonged take on speed metal. The relentless attack goes on for several minutes before the band mercilessly drops down to half-time and locks in for a slick (but still heavy) ending harmonized guitar part.
After such an intense moment, Umphrey’s McGee shifts gears once again with a long-forgotten Brendan Bayliss solo acoustic song, “You And You Alone”. This song shows Bayliss at his most vulnerable, as he sings about his respect for and relationship with his wife and family. The touching number is given the “treatment,” and is very Beatles-esque with its use of a gorgeous string section that brings out the emotion of the track.
“Forks” is an older, Cinninger-penned song that fans first heard on a four-track demo released as part of the album Mantis’ extensive bonus content. The song has been performed a number of times since 2011, however, the version on it’s not us shows that “Forks” has clearly gone through its own evolutionary process. On it’s not us, The track is marked by synth bleeps and guitar runs over a charging drum beat and harmonized vocals. The song’s “search for a light” refrain builds into a euphoric guitar explosion that is sure to delight listeners.
“Speak Up” heavily features iconic modern jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman. Redman has maintained a healthy relationship with Umphrey’s McGee over the years, performing with the band several times per year for consistently can’t-miss shows. His contribution to “Speak Up” is prominent—harmonizing and soloing over the song’s intro and trading solos with Cinninger throughout. This track is a throwback to old-school Umphrey’s McGee, with Cummins anchoring the rhythmic melody while Cinninger and Redman do their deed. The song also features one of the Umphrey’s McGee’s most interesting vocal parts, with a full band harmony leading into a syncopated anthemic chorus from Bayliss.
“Piranhas”, another road-tested Umphrey’s McGee song that will be familiar to fans, is dark and punchy from the get-go. The song’s ominous synth-bass and echoed piano lays a foundation for a great rock song—one of the most straightforward on the record. Riff lovers will adore the song’s chunky guitar part, and Bayliss’ catchy hook bleeds into an atypically restrained solo from Cinninger. This is simply a great rock song.
If “Remind Me” has the heaviest metal sound of any Umphrey’s McGee’s song on the record, “Dark Brush” comes in at a very close second. Heavy and distorted right out of the gates, the intensity of this track centers on sinister guitar, anthemic harmonies, and another filtered Cinninger vocal. It’s an intense track with lots of guitar wizardry from Cinninger, who puts his exclamation mark with “Dark Brush”.
In total, Umphrey’s McGee delivers another chapter in their long-and-winding musical career on it’s not us. The result is one of their best records yet; certainly one of their most ambitious. While the band has cemented itself as one of the biggest bands in the so-called “jam band scene”, this record is anything but a “jam band” record. it’s not us showcases Umphrey’s McGee at the height of their powers, seamlessly mixing familiar genres and sounds into their own unique and complicated musical stew—one that is now reaching perfection after twenty years of dedication to their craft.
To honor their 20th anniversary and the release of it’s not us, Umphrey’s McGee will hit New York City for a three-night run at the Beacon Theatre from January 19th through 21st, 2018. In addition to these highly anticipated shows, Live For Live Music is presenting two official after-shows featuring members of Umphrey’s as well as longtime collaborators of the band. Following the run opening performance on January 19th, Umphrey’s own Ryan Stasik and Joel Cummins will team up with Matt Jalbert and Isaac Teel of TAUK for a very special “Tauking McGee” show at the Highline Ballroom.
The second after-party on January 20th will showcase a one-off super jam formed by DJ and longtime Umphrey’s McGee pal Wyllys. Dubbed “The Will To Live,” the band will find Rob Compa from Dopapod leading the charge on guitar, while Mike “Maz” Maher from Snarky Puppy lays down his impressive trumpet skills. Those familiar with Wyllys’ NY Hustler Ensemble will recognize three alumni: former Trey Anastasio Band & New York Hieroglyphics man Peter Apfelbaum will be on percussion for the evening, while guitarist Chris Cartelli from Newton Crosby and keyboardist Zac Lasher from U-Melt will round out the all-star cast.
[Cover Photo: Shervin Lainez]