Umphrey’s has been a busy band. Within the past five months, the group has released a fantastic album, played over thirty-three shows, released a remix disc, reanimated numerous side projects. Now, Umphrey’s adds to that amazing production rate with an unanticipated full-length disc, full of eccentric new tracks and studio iterations of fan favorites, ensuring that Umphrey’s zealots will certainly find something that will delight them in 2018. “it’s you” is the second solid record to come from this recording session and, similar to its predecessor, not every track is instantaneously accessible. Umphreaks will need to revisit some tracks repeatedly to make their own assessment, becoming further smitten with each listen. Where “it’s not us” focused on juxtaposition throughout every element, “it’s you” feels more like a giant soup of songs that turned out as tasty (or better) as its glossy predecessor.
Triangle Tear, with its complex opening, with its interlocking guitar and keys riffs, followed arena rock style build, starts the album off with tons of energy. Unfortunately, the over-polished, heavily layered vocals do not serve the run-on cryptic lyrics well, neither does their sing-song delivery and they are lace themselves extensively throughout the verses. When stripped from the glitz, Triangle Tear has a chance to really shine and the song is redeemed through its instrumental offerings like the opening riff, short manic guitar solos, and a breakout cessation segment which acts as a placeholder for prospective improvisational drop-ins in a live environment.
(Editor’s Note: Since we penned this review, Triangle Tear was played live at Summercamp Music Festival…and it sounds much better live.)
What We Could Get is a crunchy, Jake Cinninger led tune that is interjected by haunting vocals, a wailing guitar riff and a passionate, engaging chorus. A fuzzy, subtle acoustic guitar creates a satisfying depth to flesh out the resonant verses as concise riffs provide breaks between chorus cycles.
The following track, Push & Pull, highlights Brendan Bayliss’ trademark enigmatic lyrics which feel as if they could apply to a myriad of situations. The minstrel’s ability to say something profound without being over specific has been a hallmark of the band since inception, and here the words triumph impeccably. There are no snarling solos or resounding drums. Instead, vocals are the main feature and the end of the tune is accentuated by a Beatles-esque harmonized section that would make Paul McCartney grin.
One of the strongest tracks on the album is In the Black. Though the band has only taken the tune out of the garage for tune-ups a few times since the song, the jam has drummed up considerable demand among the fanbase. It was only a matter of time before this refined monster made its way back onstage. Instructions as to paying one’s debts and getting a word in are embedded in complex, orchestrated verses that jerkily hop to the chorus. Towards the end of the track, the hollow call of ‘Maybe it’s me and I’m misunderstanding you, lately it feels like I’m never getting through’ only gains meaning with each restatement until its powerful cry breaks into an monumental solo.
There is beauty in simplicity and Xmas at Wartime embodies this, especially when said clarity is surrounded by the complex cavalcade that is an Umphrey’s album. Lyricless quiet space can often be an unheralded respite and Xmas at Wartime exemplifies that tranquility. The keys interlace exquisitely with the acoustic guitars, reminding us of snowflakes in December and inspiring unalloyed emotion for the listener.
Seasons has a mesmerizing and jarring effect, forming a track that gleefully skips between main sections abruptly. Unfortunately, the hallway vocal effects detract slightly from the delivery of Bayliss’ thoughtfully crafted lyrics. This is easy to forgive as other elements like background guitars, interweaved piano and moogy key solos, make this a highlight among the previously unheard tunes. Light touches from the group’s special percussionist Andy Farag are scattered throughout the song, crescendoing to powerful, thunderous hand drum segment that swells the fervor within your spirit. Keyboardist Joel Cummin’s solitary trail off at the end adds a stupendous emotional brush stroke to a fantastically executed track, one we will hopefully hear many iterations of for years to come.
The heaviest track on “its you” is easily Nether, and it shares the most in common with some of the bolder “it’s not us” tracks, blending tonal splashes from Dark Brush and Looks into a ritual that may cause you to redig through the closet for your Blood Altar. A gently distorted palm muted riff is quickly intermixed with whirling spiral keys. There is so much to love about this song. From the irrepressible lyrics and stilted build to the minute details, like a twinkling layer of Joel’s piano buried deep within the mix, or Kris Meyer’s snap drums and swift high-hat play, make for a delightfully produced tune that might be the best on the disc.
Like a drunken round hollered among arm in arm buddies across a crowded tavern, Hanging Chads makes for a amusing reprieve with a happy hate song. This track will be a ton of fun live one day, you can nearly imagine a room full of Umphreaks shouting the explicit lyrics in unison.
Veteran Attachments was born for the studio. Though the song debuted in late 2015 and has seen fifty-two plays since premier, in a live environment it often becomes muddled and fails to hold together sonically or to elevate into a meaningful jam. Not so on “it’s you”. The guitars are extremely well captured. The harmonies are clear and all falsettos pulled flawlessly. The solo is deliberate, skillful and sprightly. Studio clarity allows this track to truly shine as one of the few tracks in Umphrey’s catalogue that is better in the booth.
Fan favorite Upward is the strongest song lyrically on the disc. This track has been a fan favorite since its inception in 2014, when it had been paired with its inebriated falsetto brother Onwards at UMBowl 5, and it’s easy to see why. The first minute of Upward’s studio iteration is a bit different than its live antecedents: Bayliss, a lone acoustic guitar and a hanging electric high note punctuating the space. It nearly changes the entire mood of the song, momentarily lending a stripped bare take to a jam that’s always seemed so gloriously grandiose. The new arrangement can be a bit jarring for those who have become so familiar with the standard Upward’s intro, however, that familiarity is restored as the percussion comes crashing in before the second verse. The studio version does justice to a track already cemented into heavy rotation, sitting at a seat among the classics.
It is inevitable and somewhat unfair to “it’s you” that it always will be compared with“it’s not us” – the naming convention and time of release basically begs us to, though they are not audibly companion pieces. Without that contrast they stand on their own as separate, expertly crafted compositions. Many of the newest tunes are not as immediately accessible as anything from “it’s not us“, the band’s latest release probably shouldn’t be a novice’s first listen. That said, song-for-song, “it’s you” is more enjoyable than its precursor and seasoned Umphreaks will be gratified to find this disc has shed the poppy sheen that glossed the band’s previous work.
It is prototypical Umphrey’s to craft a secret, intricate and epic surprise like their most recent album. The backend of the album is stacked with contenders for masterpiece jam vehicle mainstays and we can only hope that the songs on “it’s you” receive more live attention than their most recent forerunners. While Umphrey’s has yet to recreate a studio chef-dœuvre on par with their 2009 opus “Mantis”, it is not for lack of trying, and with “it’s you” their beginning to breach that level once more. The best part of this album is that it ignites excitement and optimism in the heart of any devotee. This is obviously not a band waning, relegating themselves to a handful of bustout-less shows in select easy sell out cities. Instead, this is a band who will not rest until they get the chance to give us their best, who is dedicated to the continued crafting distinct, unpredictable and challenging music in both live and studio environments. We happily intend to listen to every note of it.
In the Black