Umphrey's McGee | The Bottom Half (Sci Fidelity)

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cd_umphreysA double-disc comprised of previously unreleased tracks, alternate versions of songs, and studio brainstorming, The Bottom Half reveals why Umphrey's McGee is one of the most intriguing rock bands in today's music scene, not just in the jam world.




Back on New Years Eve in 2004, Umphrey's McGee lost a great friend to a drunk driver. The grief that followed shifted the band's collective focus to record Safety in Numbers, their third studio release, and a deep, emotionally driven album that resulted in the sextet's most widespread acclaim to date. Lost but not forgotten in the midst of such times of highs and lows was a number of quality songs from Safety's studio sessions. Keyboardist Joel Cummins reveals, "Originally, Safety was planned as a double album, a set of one electric disc and one acoustic disc." After these plans were abandoned due to the aforementioned tragedy, and the success of Safety's release in the spring of 2006, Umphrey's McGee decided to revisit those recording sessions and release a number of the tracks as The Bottom Half.

A double-disc comprised of previously unreleased tracks, alternate versions of songs, and studio brainstorming, The Bottom Half reveals why Umphrey's McGee is one of the most intriguing rock bands in today's music scene, not just in the jam world. Even though much of the material was once left behind, the results are startling in their ferocious musicianship, progressive ideas, and effortless adaptations of spontaneity. This is a jam band that knows when to stop, and can permeate genres with confident sleight of hand. And despite the band's atmospheric ambitions and tendency to change direction, they somehow make it work and—most impressively—keep it tight.

The most notable nuance in the recording of The Bottom Half is that, for the first time, Umphrey's McGee opened the studio doors for collaborators. On the '80s-mimicking, keys-driven single, "Bright Lights, Big City," the band employed the songwriting of Karl Engelmann, who is also a member of Ali Baba's Tahini with Umphrey's guitar virtuoso Jake Cinninger. Flecktone Jeff Coffin is tapped for arrangement help on "The Bottom Half" and "Higgins," while Bela Fleck himself lends his famous fingers for banjo work on the folk instrumental, "Great American." It's not as though Umphrey's McGee needed any help filling out their sound, however. As Cummins adds, "It really added new dimensions to our sound." If anything, this just provides great tribute to the weight of these collaborators themselves.

The album begins with the funky bass of the title track, followed by the aforementioned single and the Bela Fleck-assisted track, respectively. On "The Bottom Half," Cinninger and fellow guitarist/front man Brendan Bayliss show off a number of their frenzied guitar tricks, an early satisfaction that'll please any Umphreak. Breaking the fury is the recorded dialogue of the band mid-session, as "Higgins Sir" places the listener inside the good-humored studio atmosphere of Umphrey's McGee (a repeated motif on disc two), with one member declaring his desire to play the track "Higgins," claiming he has "Magnum P.I. on the mind." A common distraction, as we all know.

Most of the group's distinctive form of progressive rock is abandoned on the second half of disc one, with an underrated portion of the group's talents taking front stage. On "Memories of Home," the less vocal, but much smoother-voiced Cinninger leads the crew through pretty country harmonies, as lap steel builds on a strongly written song in the vain of alt-country or folksy Americana. A few tracks later lies "Home," which could easily be a reprise or epilogue to "Memories of Home," but is no less impressive in its effortless production. Rounding out disc one are the tongue-in-cheek "Atmosfarag," the blues-meets-disco beats of "Red Moon," and reworkings of Safety's "Intentions Clear," as well as "Divisions," an old Umphrey's McGee staple.

Disc two is probably insignificant to the casual music fan, but to those interested in the songwriting process, the studio process, and the band as a whole, there are a plethora of nuggets to keep expanding on those dimensions of theirs. The highlights, of course, lie in the songs that aren't merely alternate recordings of already released tracks, but the alternate versions really do reveal a band that goes through extensive efforts to make each song the best it can be. Playful, experimental, yet precise, Umphrey's McGee are truly professionals, and their creative spirit is possibly their greatest talent of all. A | Dave Jasmon

RIYL: moe., Tea Leaf Green, King Crimson

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