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Friday, May 30
Album Review: Umphrey's McGee - Similar Skin - 2014
Firmly established as one of the most innovative and captivating live performance acts in the music business, Umphrey’s McGee highlights their studio prowess in their newest project Similar Skin. Set for a June 10, 2014 release, Similar Skin combines all of the elements that make UM the live powerhouse they have become. From Kris Myers’ powerful drums and Andy Farag’s fervent percussion, to Ryan Stasik’s thumping dynamic bass and Joel Cummins’ melodic, raunchy keyboards, all the way up through the unbeatable guitar duo of Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss, UM has perfected their teamwork in the studio, providing listeners with a picture perfect snapshot of where they are as a band at this point in time.
Similar Skin was recorded at I.V. Labs in Chicago, Illinois and co-produced by Manny Sanchez and Greg Magers, along with the UM boys. The album not only marks the band’s 8th studio album, but also the inaugural release of their very own record label, Nothing Too Fancy (N2F) Music.
The soothing bass, spacey guitar and steady, mesmerizing keyboards of “The Linear” provide the perfect beginning to the album. Debuted live in 2010, “The Linear” peaks at its heavenly bridge which shoots the listener’s head into the clouds. The raw guitar solos whirl around enough to make anyone’s head spin. “Cut The Cable,” debuted live in 2012, takes a direct look into the eyes of mortality. The high-energy, heavy rock instrumentation gives the feeling of facing one’s death head on and not looking back. The background vocals are particularly notable in this tune, as they can be less clear in a live setting. In this beautiful studio treatment, listeners hear them with all of the clarity they deserve. On “Hourglass,” the band achieves vocal perfection in the chorus. While typically jam bands tend to have a reputation of having subpar singers UM proves this generalization to be very wrong. The back-and-forth guitar solo at the end really brings out the magic of Jake and Brendan’s teamwork on the front line. “Hourglass” was debuted live in 2011.
Beginning with happy piano and some muted guitar picking, “No Diablo” finds the band in another vocal masterpiece. Debuted live in 2013, the extreme vocal harmonies are accentuated by the rhythm section. Kris’ solid drumming never misses a beat and Stasik’s bass lines refuse to stay in a single range, but never stray. “Similar Skin,” debuted live in May 2014, starts off with a thunderstorm of drums, setting a distinct tone in the intro. With this title track, we are beginning to see the prog rock that we know and love from UM. In fact, the track reminds me a lot of Rush, even more so when the intro is repeated, and elaborated on, after the first chorus. The lyrics remind us that “We all begin with a similar skin,” with subtle hints of trickery sprinkled in, such as “It’s not the story that you tell, it’s the story that you sell that really makes the difference.” Finally, a guitar solo builds into a spiraling vortex to end the tune.
“Puppet String,” one of my all-time favorite UM songs, was debuted live in 2011. While I’m very glad this stellar tune is getting the studio treatment, it is odd to hear it all in one sitting. When played live, the band usually splits it up and plays a couple more tunes in between the beginning and end. Starting off deceptively quiet, the intro builds and builds you up until… BASS! Stasik hits us with one of the most powerful, intangible bass lines I’ve ever experienced. Even so, it’s still a bit quiet, but not for long. The bridge to this tune hits you like a raging bull, leaving hardly any room for rest in between the rage and repeat. The lyrics refer to the uncontrollable nature of life and allude to the existence of some kind of higher power, singing “These puppet strings don’t pull themselves!” Dreamy keys pull into the forefront in the final hard rock section of the tune.
Written by Jake, “Little Gift” grew on me after an almost dismal first impression. Musically, it is sound and rockin’. What threw me off a bit are Jake’s ‘80s hair metal vocals in the chorus. It is a well-written track, however, with a headbangin’ rock feel. “Educated Guess” challenged me as well as a listener. Bayliss’ vocals sound like Billy Jo Armstrong from Green Day. Again, the song is well-written and musically sound, and the instrumentation has a solid groove to it. The bridge is the strongest part of the tune with spacey keys and vocals and heavy rock chords. “Loose Ends” was debuted live in 2012. The anthem-style intro leads into a passionate verse, speaking about dealing with unresolved issues from the past. As the instrumentation fills in, Bayliss belts out a beautiful chorus. “Hindsight” is definitely more metal influenced than the rest of the album and sees Jake return to the vocals. Another headbanger, this tune has a psychedelic feedback bridge that generates the potential for some serious jammin’ in the live arena.
Finishing out the album is “Bridgeless,” which was debuted live in 2004. This track has a very complex intro full of difficult time signatures. The screaming lead guitar that UM fans know all too well seems to call out to the listener, as if to say “Get ready, here it comes!” and then kicks in the much simpler, headbangin’ verse. The range of dynamics and tempo changes in “Bridgeless” supplement the time signature changes to make the tune a true prog-rock masterpiece. “Bridgeless” represents UM through and through to the core, and the boys gave it the studio treatment it deserves, with careful attention to detail, ending the album beautifully.
The band set out to make a true rock & roll record, and they have definitely succeeded. Giving some fan favorites the studio treatment and adding some new tunes to their repertoire, Umphrey’s McGee brings N2F Music to life with this versatile release, accurately representing their broad range of talents and abilities. It is obvious from this collection that UM is just getting started. These guys are on top of their game, constantly keeping fans on their toes waiting to see what comes next.