As a jam band, Umphrey’s McGee took the largest risk of their career with their 2006 release Safety In Numbers: they released a jam band album with actual songs (see: totally non-indulgent). Umphrey’s is often so easy to lump into the post-Phish jam band crowd, but their fans know that the group is so much more than that. Safety was the album that gained Umphrey’s their first major critical notices, largely because they weren’t as focused on sudden style-shifting and guitar noodling — they were writing grounded songs that were based on the recent death of one of the band’s closest friends. They were in the midst of recording a double-disc acoustic/electric album when the tragedy happened, and they developed Safety from there. The resulting album still managed to rock out on occasion, but it was to-the-point, somber, and — at times — even poetic. After a handful of live and studio releases, here the band upped their game, going as far as securing Storm Thorgerson to do the cover art (the same Storm Thorgerson who did album covers for Pink Floyd and Audioslave). Needless to say, the little jam-rockers that could had finally arrived.
Yet, what happened to all of those songs they recorded before their friend’s passing? While many of those numbers would be played during their live shows, the studio versions (along with various other demos and alternate takes) were put together on The Bottom Half, released almost one exact year after Safety in Numbers hit shelves. While it would be simple to dismiss The Bottom Half as a mere rarities compilation, it actually holds its ground as an album remarkably well, making it not only an essential addition to the band’s canon, but places it as an easy frontrunner for the best jam-rock album of 2007.
The first disc of The Bottom Half works so well is because it’s a unified effort: the expected themes of overcoming adversity, believing in what you know is right, etc.; it’s all there. The difference s that, melodically, the band has never been in such tight form. Even the ten-minute long “Division” (riding a folk-rock groove that would make Jerry Garcia proud) manages to hold together without drifting off into Infinite Guitar Solo Land. Even when they do bring in the dread six-string meandering, it’s in short, controlled bursts (like on the excellent title track, which opens the album), where soloing isn’t as much an issue of showing off to us as it is contributing to the song’s melody. Few jam bands these days show the amount of deliberate restraint that Umphrey’s do, and even fewer could have composed a moving acoustic ballad like “Home” (much less one that clocks in at under four minutes).
The group adds sampling to their resumé with the electronica-turning-rock meditation “Atmosfarag” (named after percussionist Andy Farag), and goes into full-on radio pop mode with the bombastic “Bright Lights, Big City”, which is undoubtedly fun but begins to drag after only a few minutes. “Intentions Clear”, however, remains one of their most indelible melodies to date, riding on a light, crunchy guitar riff that eventually gives way to their insanely tight horn section, creating a lazy nighttime groove. The sheer precision of their synchronized melodies is marvelous, proving that while many still prefer the experience of Umprhey’s McGee live on stage, missing out on their studio experience is missing out on a huge part of what makes the band so unique to begin with.
The other half of The Bottom Half (see: the second disc), is interesting but not essential. Don’t let the track listing fool you: of the 28 songs featured, five of them are just studio chatter, two of them are fascinating samples from an old vinyl by the touring troupe the Browning Family (said samples are heard on “Atmosfarag”), and the rest are demo counterparts to practically every song off of Safety in Numbers and The Bottom Half’s first disc. Most fascinating are the multiple treatments given to the emotional centerpiece of Safety in Numbers: the harrowing tune “Words”. Their one-minute a capella version of the chorus is a true gem, while the group also includes the intro and instrumental versions of it as well (the chorus-only version is largely studio chatter). While most of the demos are simply interesting blueprints of the fleshed-out album versions of songs, it’s the most eclectic treatments that catch our ears. “Red Room Disco” is just what it says it is, a disco treatment of the Southern-leaning original “Red Room”. It starts with studio chatter, then evolves into the band completely letting loose with a pumped dance version of the same number. It’s a brief but fun insight into their recording process. There’s also the keyboard-only version of “Atmosfarag”, riding on a heavy trip-hop vibe. Anyone who listens to the free podcasts that the band puts on their website knows that these genre exercises are more than just one-offs; from classical to heavy-metal, Umphreys’ McGee have few obstacles in their way when it comes to composition or improv.
At 39 tracks, The Bottom Half is an intimidating starting point for any listener new to Umphrey’s, and justifiably so. The second disc is wild and fun, but really only for die-hard fans. Yet it’s the stunning, powerful first disc that serves as the kind of musical statement that reshapes notions of what a stereotypical “jam band” is. This music need not be long, drawn-out, or indulgent — a true jam band knows when to control themselves, when to have fun, and knows full-well that the those two notions need not be independent of each other. With Safety in Numbers and The Bottom Half, the group officially enters the big leagues, but with the way they sound now, they’ve been ready for years.