After some 15 years, Umphrey’s McGee’s greatest distinction may be the fact that for all the various musical attributes ascribed to them, they actually seem to take delight in defying any specific description whatsoever. Then again, it’s not all that surprising, especially given their penchant for taking what might loosely be described as a progressive stance. By it’s very nature, progressive music doesn’t tend to stick to any particular norm. Add the element of improvisation, and it’s little wonder that Umphrey’s McGee continues to challenge expectations and continually shift their MO.
To expound on that notion further, prog and improv are fairly synonymous in terms of making music, and when the two are taken in tandem, they cover a fairly wide stylistic spectrum, one that can encompass such diverse entities as the Grateful Dead, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Frank Zappa and King Crimson, as well any number of bluegrass bands with populist intents. For the sake of finding a ready reference, suffice it to say that Umphrey’s McGee part of the jam band hierarchy, an all-inclusive category that merges rock, blues, bluegrass, funk, and folk with seamless efficiency.
Not surprisingly then, The London Sessions, Umphrey’s McGee’s ninth album since they were founded by their core members at the University of Notre Dame in 1997 finds the band – guitarist/vocalist Brendan Bayliss, bassist Ryan Stasik, keyboard player Joel Cummins, percussionist Andy Farag, guitarist/vocalist Jake Cinninger and drummer Kris Myers – taking a sojourn of sorts with a session at London’s landmark Abbey Road studios, at unlikely setting perhaps, but one that suits the band’s adventurous ambitions well. While keeping true to their shifting style, it offers the chance to play within their parameters as well.
Tenacious to a fault, the band accelerate their intentions with the shifting tempos and relentless riffing that accompanies the headier tracks like “Bad Friday”, “Plunger”, and the aptly titled “Out of Order”, each of which blend a jazzy motif with elements of funk, emphatic guitars and a decided forward thrust that frequently finds these tracks proceeding at breakneck speeds. However in many cases, there’s variation in tone and tempo that often intersects within the constraints of a single song. The shift in set-up sometimes makes it difficult to determine where a track starts and where it ends, forcing listeners to find some sort of continuity or — in lieu of that option — to simply strap themselves in and go along for the ride. That said, the album also offers a number of surprisingly melodic interludes, among them “No Diablo” and “Cut the Cable”, two songs that rank among the most pop-centric offerings in Umphrey’s McGee’s entire catalog. Indeed, the stirring piano-guitar meld on “Glory” (again rightfully named) brings to mind “Layla” in it’s striking progression.
And what would be a trip to Abbey Road without at least one Beatles redo, in this case, a faithful cover of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, culled from the Abbey Road album no less!
Ultimately, the album ought to find Umphrey’s McGee’s longtime admirers expressing further admiration and appreciation for the band’s daring and determination. After all, this is a group that arrived on the scene with such unerringly confidence, they named their debut album – recorded a mere eight months into their career – Greatest Hits Vol. III. On the other hand, newcomers may not be so quick to seize on these contradictions and instead, come away feeling somewhat baffled. Either way, Umphrey’s McGee continues to do what they have always done best – that is, to defy description and make any attempt to pigeonhole them an exercise in pure futility. Few other outfits can claim to offer ambition, ambiguity and integrity in such equal measure.