Published on 13th August 2015
Umphrey’s McGee – The London Session
Umphrey’s McGee emerged from the U.S. jam band scene in the late ’90s and have since recorded a string of studio albums and a myriad live, skirting the edges of progressive rock with musical influences from the usual Prog suspects plus the likes of Iron Maiden, Guns N’ Roses, The Police, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin giving their music a more straight ahead appeal flavoured with more exotic sounds. The result is a crossover of rock and metal with funk, jazz, blues, electronic, bluegrass, folk and possibly the kitchen sink too, all incorporating a good deal of improvisation.
Few of the above mentioned influences are overt in this recording but UM’s skill for playing together on the fly, bedded in by having a stable line-up since 2003 and performing gazillions of shows during the period, must have been more than a blessing during the recording of this album, almost a live in the studio set subtitled One Day At Abbey Road Studios and recorded over a 12-hour stint. Rather than facing the daunting prospect and stress of piecing together new tracks in such a short space of time the material here will be familiar to hardcore fans of the band having been mostly worked through in live settings over a number of years but never before recorded in the studio, although there are a couple of acoustic rearrangements of tracks that made it onto last year’s Similar Skin. As stated in the liner notes, “When time is your enemy, muscle memory is your friend”.
For the first six tracks, half a dozen takes were played and a “keeper” chosen for each. Remarkably, as a change of tack the last four songs form a mini-set that were recorded in a single take at the end of the session with the band on the verge of collapse. This sub-set of songs are hard to beat for both variety and energy and the method of recording has certainly maintained a vibrant enthusiasm, evidenced in the funky and upbeat opener Bad Friday which, as with the rest of the album, features fine vocal performances, the only portion of the album not tracked at Abbey Road as 12 hours didn’t give them the time to pull all the singing off to their satisfaction, these being recorded later back in the U.S.. Similar in feel to Bad Friday is Cut The Cable; slick and catchy and hard not to like when it cuts loose in the second half.
The material is not “progressive” in the wider sense but tracks like Rocker, Pt.2 take things off the beaten track and play with the rhythm, but at the heart of it all is a fine song. UM’s technique of slotting different sections together ‘Lego’-style is evidenced here right through to the frenetic finish but the results are very satisfying and the pristine production shows off the band to best advantage. Likewise Out Of Order uses its longer running time to integrate additional instrumental flights of fancy and the performances and interplay are superb throughout with, again, lots of variety in the second half.
Easy to like melodic tracks such as the more acoustic No Diablo punctuate The London Session ensuring that the focus is on the songs rather than the fireworks. The band work together well as a fully functioning unit and the four part harmony vocals are just superb. Acoustic guitars and piano give the feel of a group of friends gathered together to have fun making music and that is essentially what you get. No great concepts or aims, just get together and have a good time and as such this is a very likeable album of wonderfully well realised songs and catchy melodies.
There’s a uniquely American sensibility about Umphrey’s McGee, as with bands like Counting Crows, that means that they couldn’t have come from anywhere else and it seeps through into their music, a rootsy folkiness, such as on Glory, a delicate instrumental with hints of Dire Straits after a ‘Merican makeover that opens out into a strident second half.
Plunger is heavier and more frenetic with hints of Spin Doctors in the jumpy rhythm and great guitar interplay in the instrumental sections, whilst the jazzy funk of Comma Later evidences a love of Steely Dan that is hard not to appreciate and demonstrates the band’s versatility. These latter two tracks showcase the detail added to the music by percussionist Andy Farag. Wackiest track in this set is the bizarre Eat, a fiercely individual workout with avant overtones, nicely executed from the forebodingly epic opening through Zappa-esque vocal sections.
Given the setting for this recording, the ubiquitous Beatles cover is an almost obligatory way to finish and UM do a fine job with I Want You (She’s So Heavy) adding a dynamic laid-back cool and spot of reggae to John Lennon’s original and finishing it off with a rousing finale.
The London Session is a very enjoyable listen that demonstrates the quality and skills to be found under the UM banner. It doesn’t venture far from highly melodic and catchy but there are flashes of anarchy and otherworldliness to be had during the longer tracks. Certainly worthy of investigation.
01. Bad Friday (3:45)
02. Rocker, Pt.2 (6:32)
03. No Diablo (4:23)
04. Cut the Cable (3:34)
05. Out of Order (7:15)
06. Glory (3:59)
07. Plunger (6:29)
08. Comma Later (4:39)
09. Eat (4:25)
10. I Want You (She’s So Heavy) (5:56)
Total time – 51:07
Brendan Bayliss – Guitar, Vocals
Joel Cummins – Keyboards, Vocals
Ryan Stasik – Bass
Andy Farag – Percussion
Jake Cinninger – Guitar, Vocals
Kris Myers – Drums, Vocals
Record Label: Nothing Too Fancy Music
Year Of Release: 2015