The Bottom Half – Umphrey’s McGee
Like any bona-fide bunch of all-American middle-class Midwestern kids, Umphrey’s McGee probably backed their way into much of their musical repertoire. I make no claims to know their bloodlines, but one look at guitarist Brendan Bayliss’s backward Notre Dame chapeau or fellow axman Jake Cinninger’s “I’m-so-shredding” rock pose makes it apparent, if not evident, that these kids named Umphrey’s McGee are about as bourgeois as they come. And as UM’s forebears so accurately observedwell, something about birds of a feather. Umphrey’s McGee are in the incredibly enviable position of playing to themselves: adolescent and post-adolescent kids with enough change to spare, little enough responsibility to hit the road for a while, and an open ear for new sounds, so long as they’re mixed into a familiar recipe.
Just like the pilgrims who follow them around the country, Umphrey’s McGee come from the school of jamband kids who incorporated their metal-head admiration for the technical flash of Metallica and Iron Maiden into a more danceable neo-hippie aesthetic. The Bottom Half, compiled from outtakes from last year’s Safety in Numbers, opens with the title track, which showcases UM’s signature changes and tight twin guitars, while “Higgins” throws a reggae groove atop a slightly more poppy song structure, and yes, Cinninger’s short but razor-sharp guitar solo does come complete with hairspray and spandex.
Though there is evidence that Umphrey’s McGee have studied pre-gen-X American pop stalwarts like Stevie Wonder and the Allman Brothers, they are obviously children of the '80s, perfectly willing to inject a little tongue-in-cheese into their Saran-wrapped trance-groove progadelia. Witness “Bright Lights, Big City,” a whitebread attempt at Michael Jackson’s chocolate cake '80s funk, topped off with lyrics cheddar enough to rival the band’s mascot-guru, Huey Lewis, who (predictably for Umphrey’s fans) lends vocals and harmonica to “Women, Wine and Song” on the second disc.
Yet amidst all the clowning is the obvious depth of the band’s compositions and Bayliss’s lyrics. “Intentions Clear” is the highlight of the first disc, a clever shuffle that explores the doubts and assumptions in a shaky relationship, and though a full-powered electric version of “Divisions” might have put a more emphatic exclamation point on the album-proper, the acoustic take provides an adequate closing summary to an album that, as much as its favored older sibling, sketches a young band that sits atop the jamband pile with plenty of room and talent left to grown on.
Aside from the Bayliss-centered songs, there are the acoustic numbers, inspired in part perhaps by Umphrey’s stint with Bela Fleck (who guests on the title track) on the Acoustic Planet II tour. “Great American,” “Memories of Home,” and “Home” are pretty little ditties, and show evidence of the band’s developing songwriting talents, but with Cinninger’s weak vocals, the more subdued Umphrey’s unplugged doesn’t quite wield the force of the fully-powered version.
While the first disc of The Bottom Half sounds as complete as a “leftovers” record could, and is as sufficient an introduction to the band as any of their previous albums, disc two is, for the most part, a fans-only endeavor. The back cover simply lists “28 Assorted Outtakes,” hinting at the truth: while there are a few interesting glimpses into the band’s writing and recording process (demos of “Believe the Lie,” “Rocker,” and “Ocean Billy” and the as-yet unheard Bayliss track, “Fresh Start”) and some very pretty acoustic and a capella numbers, disc two will probably spend most of its lonely life waiting in the case for its partner to return.
That is true, of course, for everyone but the Umphreaks. While many in the jamband scene, specifically the older, jaded Phish fans, would call Umphrey’s McGee an acquired taste, it’s not hard to pinpoint their appeal. The reason for Umphrey’s rapid rise isn’t their unique songwriting or technical abilities, but their ability to combine all their disparate inspirations into a sound that wears its influences emblazoned onto a $25 merch booth t-shirt while still sounding distinctly Umph. The Bottom Half’s first half will please casual fans, but the complete package is a fan’s dream: two whole discs of unreleased, often unexpected studio tracks and outtakes, all narrated with 30 second blips of studio banter and amusing anecdotes that are just begging for fans’ asterisks and footnotes. This is dork rock, where every lyric, every chord, every change and every note is lovingly isolated for analysis and experimentation, and as long as Umph keeps feeding the phreaks, this beast will keep growing.