The worst thing that a jam band can do is try to release a studio album that “captures the magic” of live improvisation. It just doesn’t work. As any fan will tell you, jam is all about the live shows. Good thing Umphrey’s McGee‘s latest studio effort, Death By Stereo, doesn’t conform to any of those stereotypes. This successful record, with its polished production and general refinement, shows off the incredible poly-stylistic writing of its members. Every genre is mined for bits of inspiration: a little metal here, a bunch of prog rock there, a sprinkling of hard rock throughout, a few ballads, and quite a bit of funk.
That last characteristic comes out on “Booth Love”, one of the slickest tracks this band has set to tape, with a funky, horn-laced groove and falsetto vocals. This song oozes sex and is a case of the album version surpassing live versions, a rare feat for the jam community. The aptly named “Deeper” takes the funk in that direction with a lush string arrangement. Both tracks demonstrate that the band knows how to do a lot more than finger-tapping guitar or barrages of double bass drum.
One danger for a band like Umphrey’s is that their stylistic diversity can lead to a fragmented album that doesn’t cohere all too well. Certainly, a hard-edged tendency pervades throughout, but the opening track, a retro-new wave song called “Miami Virtue”, sets an incongruous table for what’s to come, while the second track, the punky “Domino Theory” is the album’s only dud. Neither song matches the more classic Umphrey’s prog rock sound on display in the tight, distorted chords and dual guitar riffs of “Conduit”, or the dizzying unison guitar/bass/piano melody of “Search 4”.
Despite defying stylistic pigeonholing, Umphrey’s has done something rare for a jam band: They have created an album where the songs are the main event, not the improvisations, and these are some great songs. The alternating verses of “The Floor” achieve a gorgeously fluid melodic interplay, while the acoustic intro to “Hajimemashite” introduces an uplifting, anthemic ballad that erupts into one of Jake Cinninger’s trademark face-melting guitar solos. If the goal is to reach listeners who aren’t accustomed to a 15 minute jam, this album might actually do its job.
Essential tracks: “The Floor”, “Hajimemashite”, “Conduit”