Umphrey's McGee - Safety In Numbers

Year of Release: 2006
Label: SCI Fidelity
Catalog Number: SCIFI 1032
Format: CD
Total Time: 54:58:00

Umphrey's McGee often get described in comparison to Phish and The Grateful Dead, perhaps the latter more than the former. My familiarity with Phish is essentially nil (of the heard of/not heard variety). My knowledge of the Dead is a bit more, but I'm far from being a Deadhead. So, perhaps this is a good thing, as I can approach Safety In Numbers from another angle.

What I hear is progressively minded, accessible rock. Progressively minded because, it's an album that's deceptive. Listen to it a few times, but without studied attention, and it goes by as something pleasant, catchy, if a bit quirky at times. But when you listen more closely, listen to what is going on beneath the surface, you find interesting complexities... the way a guitar bit here interacts with a drum bit over there, or how both and keyboards together wrap themselves around the vocals and yet don't crowd them. Safety In Numbers seems at once raw and polished (and this struck me immediately with the opening track, the catchy "Believe The Lie"). At first you think that maybe these pieces were released before they were really ready, a little sparse of embellishment or finish. But, that very rawness is the polish that makes it complete. Too polished and it would lose some of its immediacy.

And it's that immediacy that makes it accessible. There's none of the perceived pompousness that the term progressive rock engenders in the casual music fan... and even in those who like their prog down to earth. This is not symphonic Yes or overly arty Genesis or bombastic ELP or even angular King Crimson. And yet, let's go back up to the above paragraph; there's the same kind of complex arrangements and interplay as you might find in any and all of those bands. (The band are fans of all those named above... well, Yes, Genesis and Crimson, at least; you can hear this in the organ of "Believe..."). Then again, how readily accessible are Phish and The Grateful Dead? I mean, really. If these are jam bands, one has to have an inordinate amount of patience to sit through an 10, 20, 30-minute jam. And what fan of the short, direct, 3-minute pop song (even if excellent, and there is plenty out there that qualifies) is going to sit still while a band jams on for 30 minutes, letting the spirit of music take them where it will, exploring the range of emotions and tones and styles of their instrument (or trying to make manifest the psychedelic images they are envisioning - aided or not by pharmaceuticals?) That's not to say there's no accessible music from either -- though I can only say that with knowledge about the Dead ("Touch Of Grey" anyone? "Truckin'"?).

But I digress. The instrumental "End Of The Road," (another favorite) which opens with an resonant, light, acoustic guitar -- actually, a pair of them I think-- and a hint of strings is a nice, mellow, atmospheric, rootsy piece. Huey Lewis -- yes, that Huey Lewis -- features on harmonica. "The Weight Around" is a drowsy, acoustic guitar based piece, given a certain twang by a plucked slide guitar. Intimate, immediate.

Okay. Now, there's that third term: rock. Rock they do, but not in an overly accessible manner (see above). This is laid back, unhurried rock, even if it gets to movin' and groovin' (the churning, hip "Believe The Lie," the hard rocking, electric guitar centric "Nemo," the jumping "Women, Wine And Song"). UM are a band that can sit next to Echolyn (listen to "Passing," for example) and Dave Matthews Band ("Believe...")*. Though I find that the laidback "Rocker," the second track in, a country-inflected, slide-guitar featuring piece, reminds me of Toy Matinee (and by extension Kevin Gilbert; no indication that Gilbert's an influence on the band, though). A little two twangy-slidey for TM, but there's something in the vocal delivery and the lyrics... That comparison might make you think I'm next going to mention Spock's Beard. Other than just right there, I'm not. Nope. Nary a whisker... well, there's a little whisker, in "Passing." "Liquid" recalls, at least for a moment, Simon and Garfunkle (I thought of "Ceceila") and Billy Joel)... and sounds very liquid with its quivering verses and its floaty choruses and choppy guitar effects. It's a bit psychedelic (hmm... Dead?) in a hazy, gauzy way. Words like jaunty, happy, chirpy also come to mind... and a bit reminiscent of sunny 70s rock. It ends on a chaotic note mixing trilling flute over some decidedly incompatible vocals. Then again, "Words" recalls a peppy, jazzy Counting Crows (and DMB); I have to say this is one my favorites; though I'm liking all the tracks. "Ocean Billy" is a dark, rumbling, throbbing, percussion-heavy piece...perhaps their most proggy piece (and another favorite), at least for the most part as there is a short segment that a bit hazy and gauzy.

Say now, what's all these band references have in common? Why yes, you're right. They're all American artists. But more than that, they sound American. They have that American-ness about them ... maybe it's a mid-west/south kinda thing... except Echolyn are from Pennsylvania; Gilbert was from California ... as are The Dead ... as are Spock's Beard... So, it's not necessarily where you are from, but where you draw your sound from. And the Midwest ... thing ... is not country (that's Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee and points south and west), but there's a certain earthiness to the music... small town, acoustic tinged, concerned with personal politics... maybe even politics politics. It's the heartland. Anyway, there's something decidedly American sounding about Umphrey's McGee - never mind that they are, as most members come from Indiana. There's something in the tart curvature in the lead vocals; something in the simple and direct and yet not quite so direct way they approach music that is devoid of any Europeanisms (even as I'm listening to a sweet, singing guitar solo in "Words" that is one part Steve Howe, one part David Gilmour, and really like neither of them; it's a solo tone heard also in "Believe...").

"Women, Wine and Song," which also features Lewis as guest, here on harmonica and vocals, is where I first thought of The Grateful Dead ... mainly in the sing-a-long chorus. Rolling piano, Lewis' harmonica, and a chunky rhythm all give this piece a party-like atmosphere. Surprisingly, it lasts a tad under 4 minutes. Joshua Redmon guests on a groovy sax for the meaty, jazzy piece "Intentions Clear" - jazzy not just because of Redmon's sax, which is particularly warm and brassy, but also in the lead guitar work.

Hmm... 1000 words or so, and I haven't even mentioned the lyrics yet. Smart, insightful, well-written and poetic; about the choices we make or don't make, the ones we should or shouldn't have, the fallout of those choices... All of which make Safety In Numbers a complete package. We don't have to try and find a way to squeeze them into a progressive niche, but rather appreciate (and enjoy) them for what they are and how they help stretch the envelope a little bit more.

Believe The Lie (6:55) / Rocker (5:28) / Liquid (3:32) / Words (7:07) / Nemo (4:25) / Women, Wine and Song (3:52) / Intensions Clear (4:43) / End Of The Road (3:16) / Passing (4:16) / Ocean Billy (6:37) / The Weight Around (3:33)

Brendan Bayliss - guitar, vocals
Jake Cinniger - guitar, Moog, synthesizers, vocals
Joel Cummins - keyboards, vocals
Andy Farag - percussion
Kris Myers - drums, vocals
Ryan Stasik - bass


Huey Lewis - vocals (6), harmonica (6,8)
Joshua Redmon - sax (7)
Chris Hoffman - cello (2, 8)
Mike Racky - pedal steel guitar (3)

Greatest Hits Volume III (1998)
Songs For Older Women (1998)
One Fat Sucka (2000)
Local Band Does O.K. (2002)
Local Band Does Oklahoma (2003)
Anchor Drops (2004/2005)
Safety In Numbers (2006)

Genre: Jam Band

Origin US

Added: April 9th 2006
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
Artist website:
Hits: 914
Language: english


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