It’s Not Us, the most recent release from Umphrey’s McGee, is an extremely diverse and well crafted disc, showcasing some of Umphrey’s best studio work in quite some time. While the band is unquestionably at their best in a live environment, they have occasionally produced groundbreaking studio work, and while it’s unlikely It’s Not Us will be nominated for an Album of the Year at the Grammys, it will more than meet the expectations of thousands Umphreaks nationwide. The recording feigns hints of a more cohesive work, but overall lacks a motif or story to bind it track by track. Instead, this is an album about juxtaposition where contrast is a constant from song to song or even verse to verse, lyrically and musically. There is a lot to discover buried in each layer and fans will find themselves falling further in love on each relisten. The album succeeds to entertain, enlighten and inspire on many levels, forming what is easily Umphrey’s strongest release since Mantis.
The album is energetic from its outset. Leadoff track The Silent Type has morphed considerably from the fan favorite lyrical Jimmy Stewarts formerly known as “Cigarette Cables”. The fuzz distortion has a Miami Virtue theme semi-grubby sound that feels like driving down the Florida shoreline. The distortion on the vocals here is appropriate and works well with Brendan’s voice. The layered guitars add considerable depth to the new arrangement, helping the track escape beyond it’s poppy shell.
As with many tracks on It’s Not Us, Looks sounds best through headphones where all the nuances can be distinctly heard. A lumbering 80s goth industrial sound is alive and well within this song. The rhythm formed by bassist Ryan Stasik’s prominent plucking offers a funk verse vibe that contrasts heavily with the open, airy chorus. The centerpiece of the track is an out of tune King Crimsonesque solo that adds appropriate spice to a cumbersome number.
Whistle Kids sheds off the grimy glam for a laid back rock vibe and some blues licks. The song, written about recovering from a hangover while dealing with children, is wittily composed and the vocals are well harmonized. The simple, stripped down track stands out nicely in comparison to all the layered and heavy on this disc.
Half Delayed bears reflections of The Smashing Pumpkins Drown. Built of shoegazey verses eventually bear way to a distorted crescendo where dual guitars drive and ascend in an energetic fuzz flight that promises to be a improvisation launchpad in the future.
Maybe Someday is the most instrumentally complex song on the album. A frankenstein of many hodgepodge segments glued together, the band pans genres from rock to jazz in this opus. The transitions between sections are fairly smooth and each portion of the song is unique and captivating in its own way. The stratum of sound from percussionist Andy Farag up through Brendan’s vocals is deep and fascinating. Make sure to listen to this track through headphones.
Remaining fairly true to it’s live incarnations, Remind Me embodies the rest of the album as a track perfectly divided between smooth and heavy. The shoulder shuffling, slinky guitar of the first segment accompanies well formed verses. The heavy section is formed by Joel’s haunting mellotron keys, insane finger flicking guitar solos and double bass drum kick pedal mania.
You and You Alone is simply gorgeous. The strongest track on the album lyrically, Brendan recites pure poetry in a love ballad that reflects on marriage and parenthood at once. Soft key chords mix seamlessly with quiet guitar licks, swelling sentiment until listeners are overcome. While there are many songs of sorrow among the Umphrey’s catalog, this dabble into lovesongs is exemplary and will make even the most stoic face shed a tear.
We have heard Forks a couple times live before. The album incarnation is very similar but heavily plays up the 80s elements in the best way. The track is peppered with symphonic sparkles and moves at a brisk, uplifting pace. A sense of exuberance runs throughout some of Brendan’s most cryptic lyrics on the album, music one could run marathons listening to.
Speak Up debuted live in 2015 but didn’t start to become interesting until the band opened it for expansive improvisation. The studio rendition is playful and sprightly, relying heavily on keyboardist Joel Cummin’s fat organ notes, escorted by special guest saxophonist Joshua Redman.
The album’s low point is near the end. Piranhas has failed to develop into an interesting tune since its debut in 2014. A fairly straightforward cut from live to studio, the song’s linear layout and lack of variance cannot hold a candle to the surrounding tracks. The pop flavor and conventional structure creates a standard song. Previous efforts with a similar sequential build, like The Linear or Conduit, have been far more successful songs of a similar vein.
Listen to Dark Brush three times before you come to a conclusion about it. A driving distorted riff and breathy, haunting vocals make this tour de force heavy enough to be the new Wizards Burial Ground, and that will cause a decisive rift among listeners. Nothing this bold within the “jamband” community should be without debate. Dark Brush successfully takes the best elements of predecessors like Hindsight and Little Gift from 2014’s Similar Skin, and combines them with enough adventure and terror to generate nightmare specter scenery for any listener. Muffled, distorted banter and the overwhelming howl of the chorus will have this seance somehow stuck in your head.
On It’s Not Us, the band does an excellent job taking calculated risks while continuously evoking classic Umphrey’s sounds and techniques. Rhythmically the band takes lots of chances with lyrical pacing and more often than not it pays off. The boys have shown a preference to turn towards the heavy on studio albums and, in this scenario, it is a resonating audioscape nicely sprinkled with subtle sonic shimmers. The infrequent stumbles in songs do not detract from the overall audio experience whatsoever. This is not an Umphrey’s Dance Party record, though one can hear obvious on-ramps into future rhythmic Jimmy Stewarts, especially in the segues between diametrically opposed sections. There is lots to uncover here and while not every track will make it into heavy rotation, the majority should become mainstays. Embracing divergence and contrast, It’s Not Us confirms that Umphrey’s occasionally is able to surprise in studio like they often do on stage.
You & You Alone