REVIEW: Umphrey’s McGee – Death By Stereo

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Artist: Umphrey’s McGee
Album: Death By Stereo
Genre: Progressive rock
Label: ATO Records

The bizarrely-named Umphrey’s McGee are described as “progressive improvisation” or “improg,” an apt description for their brainstorming musical antics. Much of their music – at least on this evidence – feels a bit random, as though they’re jamming or making it all up as they go along, yet their experience shows in that there is a surprising amount of shape and coherence to what they’re putting together.

“Miami Virtue” is a confident and engaging start to the record. It fades in quite coolly, with a dull thudding bass line taking prominence. It’s quite stylised and a bit odd, as though it’s waiting to build up to something heavier but never actually does. It plays out as more of a self-assured easygoing swagger than anything else, and has a kooky charm that’s maximised when it unveils an unexpectedly intense breakdown towards the end. “Domino Theory” is inventive, yet has an old-fashioned air, with cocky vocals and a delightful chorus that ambitiously pulls together a variety of mismatched rhythms and instrumentation. “Search 4” is a lengthy piece that undergoes a number of transitions as it progresses, switching from a brisk and catchy piece to a more thoughtful number. It opens with two duelling guitar effects, one light and spontaneous, the other a bit heavier and grounded. A piano then adds a jazzier effect, yet it retains a light and observant tone and in turn develops a pleasing sense of adventure in the spiralling keys that come in after the second chorus.

These opening three tracks are a fine example of the striking diversity on show throughout the record, switching sound, tone, and pace quite often to compelling effect. Not all of the songs on the album manage to retain their charm through this constant reimagining, but it does ensure no two tracks sound alike.

“The Floor” has a light electric guitar, keys, and lots of fumbling instruments in a blues-y type offering with pop lacings. When the singing comes in it becomes quite atmospheric, with the guitars building up dangerously in the background and the vocals becoming quite shady and echoing for exaggerated effect. “Dim Sun” is lovely, a guarded and melancholic instrumental with some acoustic guitars bouncing off each other sadly. It’s thoughtful, yet vivid, and rather affecting in all its wordless simplicity. “Deeper” is another alluring track, with a slow and distilled, effortless sound then matched by a distant chorus of choral-like voices. This song, more so than some of the others, has a very clear sense of self – despite the gentle sound that opens it, it has a very full atmosphere and something of a classical vibe to it. The guitars take on a rather peculiar, twinkling angelic effect later on and there’s an implosion of strings that briefly derails it, but that aside, it’s suave and well-realised.

There are, happily, precious few dud notes on the record – merely tracks that don’t endear as much as the others. When you’re taking so spontaneous an approach to your recording, it’s inevitable that a few songs might get lost in translation. In this regard, “Booth Love” has a clean and easy-listening feel that actually makes it more bland than appealing. It’s good and light, a sidestep from the lengthy histrionics of “Search 4” which precedes it, but it lacks flavour. “Wellwishers” is lethargic, aiming for a jazzy sound with a brass section, and though it treads carefully it’s a bit too synthetic and detached for my liking. “Conduit” is good, a fairly thorough rock song with lots of competing bass lines and just the right touch of class and charm to make it work. That said, it’s not all that interesting, and feels a little like we’ve heard it all before.

“Hajimemashite” – the final track, which roughly translated means ‘pleased to meet you’ in Japanese (or so the Google gods tell me) – is a fairly worthy ending, however. It has the light feel of a country track when it starts, but then evolves into a far more pervasive sound with a stronger guitar, a touch of strings and a piano. There’s a freewheeling but elegant solo that loses its way ever so slightly towards the end, momentarily making the song sound like a confused power ballad, but that aside, it ends everything on a triumphant note.

Death By Stereo might be a slightly ambitious title for this, but it will take you on a more amusing and imaginative journey than most other records. Colourful and fun-loving, there should be something here for everyone to love.

SCORE: 8/10
Review written by Grace Duffy

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