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Published: 2006/04/16
by Randy Ray

Safety In Numbers – Umphrey’s McGee

SCI Fidelity 1032

As many times as we’ve been there and back again

Alas, Safety In Numbers, the newest Umphrey’s McGee platter took an awfully long time to open up for me and when I did get it, I heard everything clear as a funeral bell donging away with a low pulsating rhythm. I’ve been following the boys from Chitown for quite a while and, since their sound often delivers challenges and humor, I have stuck by their side. Truth be told, I’ve been curious to see if they can shed their post-college bar band good humor aura and take on the deep hubris of maturity and complexity that always seemed to be just underneath their heady jamband surface. Sure, Umphrey’s McGee often seemed like live music whores with guest spots rivaling the Cal Ripken-type theatrics of the ubiquitous Warren Haynes (our generation’s Phil Collins: here, there and everywhere). But playing all the time doesn’t make a band great. Experience, luck, talent, turmoil — “it’s the tunes, stupid" — and LIFE in all its wretched anti-glory make a band divine and resonant throughout the ages.

Safety In Numbers is structured in the same fashion as Radiohead’s Kid A, with slow, pensive tunes at the beginning. “Rocker” may be the best song the band has ever written, as they finally balance warm melody with a unique hook. “Words,” with its spectacular nuances, features Brendan Bayliss at his lyrical and vocal best, the band riding an incredible wave of romantic afterglow. “Nemo," juggles a wonderful piano break from Joel Cummins with riff rock and Phishy goosebump majesty. “Women, Wine and Song," meanwhile, is a confident gem out of nowhere, which is the best Huey Lewis and the News song in 20 years, featuring great harmony vocals, Cummins on persnickety piano and — wait for it — Lewis himself on background vocals and harmonica.

“Intentions Clear” is another new avenue for the McGees as Joshua Redman guests on saxophone, the song subsequently straddling Steely Dan with some Zappaesque residue. Nice, indeed. “End of the Road," a double-tracked Jake Cinninger acoustic instrumental, has a title which echoes the album’s theme of relationship dissolution and the remorse towards lives cut prematurely short. The guitar work features some of Cinninger’s best playing to date but, to be fair, the entire band crafts some of its finest songs throughout the 11 featured here.

The arc curls down into deeper textures with the trio of songs that close the album. The trio begins with Bayliss’s haunting "Passing." “The Weight Around” ends on a very solemn and bittersweet note as Bayliss ponders communication, habits, expectations and the lack thereof. This ain’t no college bar band anymore and thank the jam-makers for that fact. If anything, Umphrey’s McGee crafted their version of Led Zeppelin III — a transitional line in the sand has been crossed. The band is clearly more intent on their future compositional possibilities. And we all know what Zeppelin created after the needle raced across the end of III. We shall see if this surprisingly self-assured, well-sequenced and moving set of songs translate to the stage and produces the studio masterpiece that awaits the men from Chicago.

I don’t care if I’ll be no one in the end

– “Nemo”

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