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New talent and old influences enter jam genre

By Chris Cooper

Approaching the “jam band” thing from some very different angles, Umphrey’s McGee manage to bring shades of vintage Yes, Peter Gabriel and Rush to the mix in lieu of the usual suspects (Grateful Dead, Phish, Allman Bros.) They also write some great tunes, possess formidable chops and still sound like they’re having fun.

Rolling Stone included the band in its “hot” issue and they have a tour schedule that more than defines “hectic.”

Huey Lewis apparently likes them quite a bit as well. Do with that what you will.

Safety In Numbers is the group’s latest effort, following 2004’s Anchor Drops. While the genre hopping and tempo shifts are fully present, many songs clock in below five minutes. This relative brevity indicates more concise songwriting, as on “Liquid,” “Women, Wine and Song” and “Intentions Clear,” the latter featuring Joshua Redman on sax.

In fact, it’s often surprising to realize so much has happened in one of UM’s songs in such a short amount of time. “Intentions Clear” demonstrates this the best, with the complex ensemble lines creating a hypnotic effect that could easily have spun off into nowhere, but here serves to enhance the song.

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A little N’awlins swagger mixed with some Dregs inspired southern fried fusion makes “Women, Wine and Song” move in a very cool way. The Kansas styled organ in the pre-chorus demonstrates more of their sponge-like absorption of influences, and Huey Lewis makes his appearance here on harmonica and backup vocals.

Though this point has been made before, it still seems important: often musicians with serious chops wind up making music that’s not so much fun to listen to, or at least it’s only enjoyable by other musicians, leaving the average listener reaching for something easier with which to relate. Umphrey’s McGee miraculously sidesteps this trait again and again, and an ability that is a testament to their growth and overall skill as a band. The live shows are quite possibly another thing entirely, but on record, the music is adventurous and succinct — not the easiest trick.

Lyrically the album, for all its bounce and brightness, actually is very somber and down to earth. “Rocker” is a fine example. The title doesn’t seem to refer to the musical styling at all; it’s a mostly acoustic fare dealing with loss and regret, or maybe it’s about dealing with dealing with thoughts of loss and regret. The arrangement shines in the use of strings, piano and tasty slide guitar.

While the trippy warbles and blips of “Liquid” brighten things up, the human factor remains — life keeps moving, and we hold on or get swept under by the current. Along the way we should remember to enjoy ourselves, if just a little. Oh yeah, “Ocean Billy” just plain rocks.

It’s hard to find fault with Safety In Numbers — there’s lots of texture to chew on, the songs provide plenty of movement without getting lost, the playing is excellent and tasteful, and the lyrics aren’t an afterthought. It may still be a little busy for the MTV generation, but when was the last time MTV had any actual music on the air? If Umphrey’s McGee drops anchor anywhere around here, it’ll be quite a show to catch. Dare I say...5 stars.


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