Umphrey's McGee, The Bottom Half (2007)

Share this:

Photo credit: Danny Clinch

by Pico

Nothing screams “non-hardcore fans need not apply” than a collection of outtakes, unfinished tracks and main release rejects. But today (April 3), jam band Umphrey’s McGee is introducing such an album, The Bottom Half to the public, and I’m happy to report that that this sextet has plenty of the good stuff leftover for both the fanboys and newbies alike to enjoy.

Formed in the late nineties, South Bend, Indiana’s own Umphrey’s McGee is a throwback to when music was handcrafted, both in the writing and the playing of it. They are akin to what you get when you take Phish and strip out most of the goofiness and excesses and leave the musicianship intact. Arguably, they are the successors to that now-defunct king of jam bands.

UM seems to be doing more than just picking up the crown and putting it on its collective head, however; lately they are even pushing this elusively-defined genre forward from The Grateful Dead and Phish. The fantastic ensemble playing is there, to be sure, but they have a better sense of when to actually end a song and avoid mindless noodling.

The songs have actual structures and the lyrics are thoughtful and meaningful without getting overly philosophical. They actually sweat the details on the vocals; it feels like the singing is an ends onto itself and not brief interludes betweens endless instrumental wanking.

All the while, they thrive on chance-taking with unpredictable melodic shifts and draw from an limitless well of sources for inspiration; from the prog rock of King Crimson to the gentle country-rock of Graham Parsons and everything else in between.

These guys look like they weren’t even born when most of the music they recall was popular, yet they play like a bunch of old vets. No mind-altering chemicals or extremely open-minded dispositions are needed to enjoy the challenging but accessible sounds of Umphrey’s McGee.

All of that and more is found in the odds and ends collection The Bottom Half. Aptly described as a sequel to 2006’s Safety In Numbers, these tracks were was left on the cutting room floor when Safety was assembled for release and plans to make it a double cd release were dropped.

Listening to both, it seems they chose a somewhat more serious mood for last year’s album and the resulting collection brought the group greater success and popularity. And rightly so.

What this means is that what’s left over, The Bottom Half, isn’t inferior, it probably just didn’t quite fit the mind-set the boys were looking for at that time. All that’s made Umprhey’s McGee a comer in the last few years can still be found on this release.

Umphrey’s has a clever knack for switching musical styles within songs. For example, “The Bottom Half”, the song, appears to be mainstream rock, but reggae and Sgt. Pepper-esque passages are thrown in. “Red Room” alternates between rock and country. “Higgins” primarily is a reggae, complete with a nifty saxophone section, but with a kinetic, rocking bridge.

Elsewhere, the band mixes it up with varying styles from track to track. The delightful groove of “Bright Lights, Big City” is a dead knockoff of Duran Duran. “Memories Of Home” would have been right at home in a Pure Prairie League record, right down to the pretty harmonies. A couple of instrumentals, “Great American” and “Atmosfarag” don’t make a much of an impression one way or the other, although the acoustic bluegrass-styled of the former track would probably go over well in concert.

The catchy “Intentions Clear” is only slightly different here than the one that made the cut on Safety In Numbers, with an alternate ending featuring layered saxophone work by jazz wunderkind Joshua Redman.

Only on the Disc 1 closer, the ten minute long “Divisons,” does McGee somewhat fit people’s general perceptions of what a jam band should sound like. But even the extensive workouts lack individual hot dogging and stress group interplay.

Disc 2 is probably more appropriately called a “bonus” disc. It’s full of early versions of songs, studio chatter, and unadorned vocal tracks. It’s not the kind of disc you’d listen to as most as the finished product provided in Disc 1. But UM fans will still find some interesting moments, like a humorous disco version of “Red Room” and a nice vocals-and-percussion only section of “Words”.

The Bottom Half may lack the continuity of it’s big brother album Safety but the change ups do a good job of holding one’s attention. UM took more risks and seemed to be a bit more relaxed even though these tracks were culled from the same sessions (obviously, they were very relaxed on Disc 2, but that was kind of the point). M

y mind tells me that Safety In Numbers is the better companion, but my heart says that The Bottom Half is actually the more enjoyable one. Regardless, Umphrey McGee’s chaff still makes for a tasty loaf of bread.

Track listing:

Disc 1:
1. The Bottom Half
2. Bright Lights, Big City
3. Great American
4. Higgins Sir
5. Higgins
6. Memories Of Home
7. Atmosfarag
8. Red Room
9. Intentions Clear
10. Home
11. Divisions

Disc 2:
1. Words
2. Medley: Great American/Believe The Lie
3. Believe The Lie
4. Time Eater
5. Never Cease
6. Rocker
7. Ready Noodles
8. Higgins
9. Heart Of Rock ‘N’ Roll
10. Fresh Start
11. The Browning Special
12. Ocean Billy
13. Intentions Clear
14. What Else?
15. Alex’s House
16. End Of The Road
17. Red Room Disco
18. Rocco
19. WWS
20. The Weight Around
21. Liquid
22. Atmosfrag
23. Words (Chorus)
24. Memories Of Home
25. Browning Family Creed
26. Biscuits & Gravy
27. Words (Intro)/Words
28. Words

Purchase: Umphrey’s McGee The Bottom Half

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
Share this:
Close