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Published: 2002/08/24
by Mike Greenhaus

Local Band Does OK – Umphrey’s McGee


One day, Umphrey's McGee should think about scoring films. Like a film
score, their songs are a series of highs and lows, tied together by ringing
chords and guitar solos. Their jams run the gamut of emotions, thinly
weaving such diverse styles as jazz, rock, techno, bluegrass, and "Zappa"
into melodramatic story songs. Formed in Chicago, Umphrey's McGee once
strung their set lists with Phish's early canon. While the group has clearly
carved their own niche in the ever-growing jamband encyclopedia, their early
Phish influence is still apparent. Like Phish's Junta and Lawn
Boy epics and A Picture of Nectar jazz-fusion experiments,
Umphrey's McGee craft long, adventure-like tales based around stories that
would make great demonic cartoons. On their newest release, Local Band
Does OK, the midwestern sextet reset this early Phish genre in the
modern jam world, placing techno and ambient noises where classic rock
fusion once tied such epics and "Fluffhead" and "Divided Sky" together.
These songs are movable and easily danceable, at times making one want to
tango instead of do the hippie wobble.

Local Band Does OK has several different sections, which often
overlap and interweave in order to fit "all the sound that's fit to press"
into one disc of jam rock. Opening with the menacing party anthem "Andy's
Last Beer", Umphrey's McGee jump between hard rock guitar solos and mellow
jazz notes, pausing briefly to pop open a beer before proceeding with a
psychedelic stew of drums, bass, guitars, keyboards and – on a few tracks – the guest horns of Rich Cohen and Michael "Maddog" Mavridoglou.
On "Hurt Bird Bath," the group opens with some hard organ pounding from
keyboardist Joel Cummins and some bopping bongo work from percussionist Andy
Farag, before seamlessly shifting to a series of mellow, acoustic-tingled
jazz guitar solos from Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss. The guitar team
then slowly increase their tempo, until they have returned to the space-age
psychedelia and siren-tinged keyboards that open the album.
To the group's credit, they don't forget about their voices when they
unleash their jams, but instead adjust their vocals to fit into the songs'
changing tempos and darker tones. Unfortunately, like all too many modern
jam rockers, Umphrey's McGee's lyrics take away from their complex
instrumental work. Their lyrics are inspired by the abstract ideas of Frank
Zappa, but lack that cynic's sense of irony and sarcasm. Their poems tend to
be general and generic, trapping youthful hymns in tight rhymes and clich
On "2nd Self" the group sings, "No matter how you fall / it shouldn't bother
you at all / And no matter how you break / you shouldn't be the one to take
your own opinions / as they twist in your own way" while sunny guitar solos
go flying in the background. Trapped between rhymes, the lyrics' message
seems to sink in a sea of chords and guitar parts.

But, when the group returns to their instrumental, soundtrack-like sound,
their music reaches its musical potential. The steel drum led "The Empire
State" has the feel of a ethereal nature tape set in Apocalypse Now,
until it moves into the haunting and fast moving "White Man's Moccasins,"
whose chords change quickly. The song plays like the scariest part of a
film, making us wonder if there is any hope of escaping the forest and
reaching the land of Oz.

In fact, maybe on day someone will play Local Band Does OK alongside
a classic film of our generation. Like Dark Side of the Moon, the
album's emotional waves make it seem like they were created to fit alongside
a melodramatic adventure, whose images will make up what the lyrics lack.
That quality stands as a testament for the strength and stability of the
group's sound and the fictional possibility of its songs. In fact, you can
almost hear R2D2 speak six minutes into "White Mans Moccasins". But, given
Umphrey's McGee's tendencies they'd rather have their work played
alongside "Dazed and Confused" then the "Wizard of Oz" any day.

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