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Umphrey's McGee: Asking for a Friend
(Nothing Too Fancy Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/20/2022)
Umphrey’s McGee is a group who have always occupied an interesting place musically. Formed at Notre Dame University in the late 1990s, the sextet has long been considered part of the jam band scene, but they bring in the kind of musical sophistication in their compositions and high level of musicianship associated with the progressive rock scene. They also add a dash of whimsy with their lyrics and titles like the fact they they named their first album, as an unknown band, Greatest Hits Volume III. Their music has been dubbed “Im-prog.” And over the decades they have been a band who are very much at home performing for their fans, offering special services and versions of their music to fans and over a dozen live albums.
Touring as extensively as the band has done, they usually debut new material to their live audiences before going into the studio to record. Last year, during the pandemic, they released an album of the instrumental music they would play at the outset of concerts. But the pandemic kept the band off the road since March of 2020, and with the members scattered around the country, they set out on a 14-month process to do a new studio album recorded with their parts created individually, remotely exchanging ideas for songs and developing them that way. So their new album, Asking for a Friend, their 14th studio release, contains all new original material which the band had not been able to play live.
The new album is also distinctive in deemphasising the jam band aspect and creating songs that have more to say lyrically than the a typical Umphrey’s McGee album. The songs are definitely not jam band length, with the longest track timing in at five and a half minutes, and only two of the fourteen tracks on this generous album exceeding five minutes. In a podcast interview, the band said that they specifically set out to something that might surprise their fans. The result is an album of tightly structured material and with more emphasis on melodic content than their progressive rock tendencies would normally bring forth.
Opening is a track called I Don’t Know What I Want which sums up the musical direction of the album, with a kind of ska beat, some almost pop vocal harmonies, but with the group’s musical complexity. <<>>
Small Strides is another interesting track with intriguing, semi philosophical lyrics. It also allows for the band to bring in different instrumental colors from pop influenced to more electric. <<>>
Always October seems as if it might have been inspired by the isolation of the pandemic, and being apart, and trying to get back together again. <<>>
New Wings addresses a complicated relationship in a sort of melodic rock setting. <<>.
The band cranks it up for much of the track It’s Not Your Fault with another set of lyrics about a relationship with its complexities. <<>>
Another highlight of the band’s sophisticated pop-rock sound on the album comes on the track called Pure Satisfaction, combining strong vocal harmonies with an arrangement that makes unexpected transitions, and eventually leading to the closest thing to a jam on this album. <<>>
There is one particularly unexpected tune on the album. How About Now is folky and acoustic from this normally very electric band. <<>>
The album ends with Work Sauce with a sort of commentary on the state of the world. <<>>
Since 1997, Umphrey’s McGee has been making music in a distinctive hybrid of jam band sensibility with the musical sophistication of the progressive rockers. Very much a live group, they have long worked out and refined their music before audiences, usually before recording them. But the pandemic, which has affected performing musicians in a lot of perhaps unexpected ways, beyond the loss of live concerts, has in some ways caused artists to rethink the creative process, often by collaborating remotely. We noted that in last week’s review of the duo called Big Little Lions.
For their new, 14th studio album, Umphrey’s McGee, whose members have been living in different parts of the country, collaborated on this project remotely and created this album, before any opportunity to perform the music live. The result is somewhat more personal and lyrically lyrically astute, with more succinct tunes than their previous music. The members have stated that they looked upon this as being somewhat unexpected for their fans. The result is fully up the band’s high standards, and they show another facet to their always interesting music.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” There’s good clarity and nothing is muddled in the mix, and the vocal harmonies are well handled for such an electric band.
The pandemic was a major challenge to many musicians. On Asking for a Friend, Umphrey’s McGee ended up using it as as opportunity to show yet another aspect of their resourcefulness.
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