[9 January 2008]
When I used to read album reviews in my teen years, one of the things I always hated – and I mean hated – was that a lot of writers would assess artists only in terms of a pre-determined criteria and not according to the artist’s individual merits. You’d get writers who were fixated on the three-minute pop tune trashing the Grateful Dead because the latter’s multi-disc live sets were ostensibly “indulgent”. Or you’d comes across heavy metal types who would trash pure pop artists because they considered anything with an acoustic guitar “wimpy”. I always thought these writers kind of missed the point, even though I often found their tirades funny (and you know who I’m talking about).
So now that I’m grown up and reviewing albums myself, I don’t want to fall into that same trap as these aforementioned critics. Thus, the new Umphrey’s McGee album, Live at the Murat, is absolutely and unapologetically jam band music and needs to be judged as such. And in that sense, it’s pretty damn good. If you like this sort of thing, you’ll definitely get your money’s worth, because this two-CD set spills forth over two hours of exploratory, improvisational music (all of which was recorded April 6-7 at the Murat Egyptian Room in Indianapolis, In.). But if you’re looking for the tight little hooks or ironic lyrics or monster riffs, look elsewhere (you know who you are). But as jam bands go, Umphrey’s seems to be hitting its mark and living up to writer David Fricke’s assessment that they’ve filled the gap left by the now-defunct Phish.
Live at the Murat is the ninth album released by the six-member, Chicago-based band since its inception in 1998 and the band members now have an ease and comfort with themselves and their audience that can only come from longevity. That comfort level is evident from the opening track, “In the Kitchen”, where the band snaps immediately into a jazzy, mellifluous groove that’s loose but not sloppy. That track segues into an improvisational acoustic number (called “Acoustic Improvisation”) and then an electric jam (no prizes for guessing its title) and then back to an “electric” rendition of “In the Kitchen”. By the time the band arrives back at their original destination point, you pretty much want to stand up and cheer with the audience. The entire sequence is a dazzling display of musical telepathy and it sets the tone for this set.
The music itself is a stew of jazz, rock, progressive, acoustic and funk. There’s even a bit of rap on one of the disc’s most infectious tunes, “40’s Theme”. Unlike some of the band’s earlier releases, this one eschews tight song structures for extended jams. And like most albums of this type, the sheer length of most of the jams (many of which hit the ten-minute mark) may seem off-putting at first. But since this band’s melodic sense is strong and the musicians seem to delight in mixing and matching musical styles, it’s never boring. Bewildering at first, perhaps, but not boring.
As the above may imply, this music isn’t what the critics would call “focused”. But that’s not what it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be eclectic, and in that sense, it works. It’s at its most interesting in its weirdest spots, like when the band moves from the electronic disco pulse of “The Triple Wide” to the fractured, Frank Zappa-esque rhythms (and rave-up guitar) of “Angular Momentum”. Speaking of Zappa, Umphrey’s McGee has been compared to the late rock iconoclast. That begs the question: “Which Zappa”? To my ears, the band seems to draw from the elastic soloing and wild poly-rhythms of such instrumental albums as “Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar” and its follow-up, “Guitar”.
Similarly, Umphrey’s has gotten compared to Steely Dan, but they’re way too loose and uninhibited to come off like that team of neurotic perfectionists (I love The Dan, folks, but let’s be honest about ‘em). What Umphrey’s does have in common with Steely Dan is the fact that their music is infused with keyboards. And the glue that holds most of the music together on this CD is Joel Cummins’ piano, which underpins each tune with spacious chord patterns. Guitarists and singers Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger might be the obvious frontmen of this group, but Live at the Murat gives lots of time to Cummins as well as percussionist Andy Farag – and the pair work wonders with the Cuban-tinged rhythms of the instrumental “White Man’s Moccasins”.
On “Push the Pig”, one of the band’s more popular numbers, Cummins breaks out old-fashioned Moog synthesizer sounds that recall the glory days of prog rock. Drummer Kris Myers lays out a slinky reggae beat for the peace’n'love summer anthem “Ringo”, then brings the funk for “Hajimemashite”, after which, of course, the band moves back into “Ringo”. All that’s missing is the little arrow you’d put on your live tape to connote “segue!”
One of the more endearing elements of Umphrey’s McGee’s sound is the singing, usually done by Bayliss and sometimes done in harmony with Cinninger. Bayliss has developed a style that might be best characterized as “anti-vocalist”. He sings in such a casually offhand manner that he seems more of an element of the instrumentation than a frontman. Considering the way most vocalists these days tend to over-sing and hyper-emote Bayliss’ unschooled singing can be considered an act of rebellion.
The very sound of Live at the Murat also runs counter to current trends – and is all the better for it. The soundscape is spacious and open, and mixers Manny Sanchez and Kevin Browning avoid the massive amounts of compression and limiting that make too many current releases hard on the ears. Besides the musicianship, one reason this band-produced CD is endlessly listenable is because of the good ears of Sanchez and Browning (the latter of whom also co-produced).
Live at the Murat is the second two-CD release from Umphrey’s McGee within the space of a year. Where the previous release, The Bottom Half, gave fans a plethora of studio goodies to groove on (like demos and b-sides), this one has more than enough live material to keep fans satisfied. Just don’t expect it to be understood by old school critics, still looking for that eternal hook or power chord.