For a jam band like Umphrey’s McGee, it is understandable that their comfort zone lies on stage where their extended jam sessions and creative genre-fusion experimentation yields an enthusiastic crowd response. In the studio, however, the goals are somewhat different: like always you want to entertain and otherwise move the audience, but the lack of live, in-person energy must be considered. Speaking for myself, at least, extended jam sessions (I’m thinking several tracks off of the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East
) can grow tiresome even on a live album, let alone an album recorded in the closed, comparatively stale environment of a studio. While Umphrey’s McGee’s 2004 album Anchor Drops
is not without the epic jam journeys that are in their nature, it is a very tight, well-produced album that carries over energy from the stage to the living room.
Hailing from the Chicago area, the band members embrace the city’s strong jazz influences and urban culture while fusing numerous other genres like rock, heavy metal, funk, and even some country. This fusion lends to some incredibly complex and carefully constructed song compositions with styles, melodies, and instrumentation changing abruptly in many songs. The large band behind this blend consists of Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger on guitar and vocals, Joel Cummins on keyboard and vocals, Ryan Stasik on bass, Kris Myers on drums and vocals, and Andy Farag on percussion. Over the course of the album, just about every member has time in the spotlight, from the organ-like keyboarding in “Miss Tinkle’s Overture” to the furious drum intro to “Mulche’s Odyssey.” More constant and predominant, however, are Stasik’s funky and outstanding basslines and Bayliss and Cinninger’s heavy guitar riffs and warm, clear vocals.
The album’s opener “Plunger” well characterizes the album as a whole with a prominent scratchy guitar riff leading into a number of pace and style changes from a psychedelically synthesized guitar portion to acoustic fingerpicking, calming piano melody, and then back to a gritty electric guitar riff. It’s one thing to incorporate these elements within a single song, but it is quite another to do it well and seamlessly, which Umphrey’s McGee accomplishes more often than not. “Anchor Drops” and “In the Kitchen” are two of the catchiest songs here, with the first offering a groovy bassline and climactic guitar work, the latter bringing alternately foreboding and uplifting melodies and excellent lyrics, and both radiating pure coolness.
The pace and style of the album then abruptly changes with the slow, laidback country tune “Bullhead City” on which Bayliss’ wife Elliott Peck provides a wonderful harmonizing vocal. The song is very calming and beautiful, but it (along with the acoustic instrumental closer “The Pequod”) feels out of place on the album. While the structure of numerous songs leaves the door open for even greater experimental jamming, song lengths are kept to a minimum (maxing out at 7:43) and the album is better for it. “Miss Tinkle’s Overture,” an epic instrumental jam session driven by keyboard and a soaring guitar, lets the band flex their instrumental muscle, as do the bluesy-rock of “Jajunk Pt. I” and “Jajunk Pt. II” and the psychedelic machine-filterings of “Robot World.” As impressive as these demonstrations are, however, many songs do tend to step on each other’s toes and contribute to a sense of repetition.
The last standard song on the album, “Wife Soup,” is also arguably the best. Beginning with another groovy bassline, the song descends and then rises into an upbeat guitar and brass section (courtesy Karl Denson on saxophone and Andy Geib on trombone) before making a number of piano-driven melodic detours. For all its intricacies, the song converges twice with a soaring, catchy, and instantly sing-along chorus that makes the song standout on the tracklist.
As mentioned earlier, Umphrey’s McGee wears their pride for Chicago on their sleeves. If their Chicago pride weren’t obvious enough from their album cover, the album is dotted with urban sound effects and references from the “doors closing” announcement of an L train (“Anchor Drops”) to street scenes (“Jajunk Pt. II,” “Robot World”) and lyrics depicting urban living (“In the Kitchen,” “Walletsworth”). The city’s love of jazz and blues music is embraced throughout the band’s work in addition to a number of other genre influences. In addition to the jam band formatting their music expertly into a studio album format, their consistent musical energy and masterful jamming abilities should make Chicagoans and jam bands alike proud.