Umphrey’s McGee is not The Dead or Phish nor Zappa or Ben Folds.
Umphrey’s McGee, who just released its 11th studio album, it’s not us, sits in a fascinating place on the jam band spectrum. The term is increasingly defined by a group’s business model more than its music. The Grateful Dead is Patient Zero for this phenomenon, and its mixture of psychedelia, roots music, and long-form improvisation as a rock band set the mold. More importantly, The Dead was ahead of the curve on how to gain fans and earn money from live shows and genuine community without significant radio play. The bands that followed this economic model (instead of a big record company model that may not even exist anymore) often played similar music, but that wasn’t the rule. Phish built its reputation on long, jam-heavy live shows that made its studio albums seem like sketches, at best. But in a way, The Dead and Phish are just classic rock bands, and both Jerry Garcia and Trey Anastasio, in the end, are just guitar slingers who also really liked The Beatles.
Alongside countless ways for fans to access live shows, Umphrey’s McGee makes it clearer than ever that its guitar acrobatics and jam tendencies are not—and maybe have never been—their core. it’s not us is a collection of real songs. With hooks and choruses and melodies that are worth as much as whatever jams its chord progressions might suggest, it’s basically a classic rock band in an era when classic rock is no longer the most relevant cultural force.
While it is clearly the outlier, “You & You Alone” is emblematic. It is a stripped-bare acoustic ballad built on finger-picked guitar, acoustic piano, and a gentle but resonant vocal performance that winds a lovely melody that swells into a harmonized chorus. The craft is strong enough that you aren’t put off by the entry of a string quartet, sweetening the already Ben Folds-ish sincerity. Why does it work? Because it’s a really good love song, style and stylization aside. It might even be a classic rock ballad—if only so many of these songs hadn’t already been written.
Still, that strength is what makes it’s not us an Umphrey’s McGee album that could break out. “The Silent Type” leads it off with a dance groove that still sounds like rock. Lead singer Brendan Bayliss sasses out a vocal that lands somewhere between the panache of The Killers and the snark of Fountains of Wayne, telling a quick story rather than just emoting. The music shows the band’s affection for texture, shifting from quick metal licks to shimmering synth washes to spare sections built on syncopated groove drums. “Whistle Kids” almost seems like a joke at first—starting as what might be a parody of certain kinds of cutie-pie pop hits that have a little whistling figure—but it quickly adds a blues guitar line and Rhodes electric piano underpinning that makes the song funky and a falsetto-dominated chorus that sounds like the blue-eyed soul of G Love.
The album is a survey of vintage sounds, any of which could have been recorded before 1990. There isn’t any hip-hop here, nor is there anything pre-1964 in influence. So, for example, the happy funk groove of “Remind Me” has a taste of the ‘70s (Boz Scaggs, maybe?) and a flat U2-ish chorus. It also has a second act that is screaming robot-fusion-metal that can he best described as crotchular, and it would have been better without it. “Piranhas” has the menacing flow of certain Police tunes, and a chorus that opens up to arena size. “Forks” has a thrilling quadruple-time percolating groove that is like your favorite song from the ‘80s, perhaps a Tears of Fears track you overlooked. “Dark Brush” is a thudding prog-rock tune with plenty of Metallica in its bones. “Looks” contains no shortage of Red Hot Chili—funky bass and growling vocals aplenty.
But you can see the problem with Umphrey’s: so many of these songs sound like another band, a certain style (that keeps switching), another era, a moment in your life. The band is clearly fluent in the language of classic rock, but does it’s not us present a distinct sound? Does it suggest an Umphrey’s McGee signature other than incredible eclecticism?
Other tracks demonstrate that the band does have something else going for it. On “Half Delayed, ” the bass funks, the guitars twine around each other and the vocal is cool and dead on—but most importantly, it doesn’t suggest another band. “Maybe Someday” has the melodic, lyrical soar of the best classic rock, and then shifts into a complex section that moves from slick fusion to stomping instrumental rock, and not of the crotchular sort.
These tunes find a middle ground between derivative classic rock and a brand of chops-heavy jamming that revels in the ability of musicians to really fucking rock however they choose. The best popular music, of course, does not just do whatever it pleases but does something wonderful and real in a short space that reaches into people and makes them feel something. That kind of popular art and great song can be found in spades on it’s not us, but the lack of focused identity keeps the recording from being a real stunner.
So why is it called it’s not us? Is the band aware, that, after 20 years of existence, it’s still looking for its own sound? Umphrey’s McGee is not The Dead or Phish nor Zappa or Ben Folds or whoever else its reputation or niche or songs might suggest. Proficiency and song craft aside, the search for an identity continues.