Umphrey's McGee - Safety In Numbers

While displaying the precision rock aptitude that is the touchstone of their sound, Umphrey’s McGee’s Safety In Numbers delves into highly personal songwriting and diverse structures. From the foreboding "Believe the Lie" kickstart to the dramatic "Words," the joyous "Women Wine and Song," and the wistful "The Weight Around" ending, this is a showcase of Umphrey's McGee's myriad abilities as well as a highly emotional experience.

There’s little of the cheeky Local Band Does OK vibe or the broad scope of Anchor Drops here. Safety in Numbers has its emotional peaks and valleys, but they’re nicely equalized into a level plane of continuity that makes the album a complete experience. It seems as if the songs all came from the same place in the band’s collective consciousness, and after a few listens, one can feel the alternating undercurrents of human emotion.

Awareness of the band’s emotional state during the writing and recording of most of this disc is, in my opinion, necessary to fully appreciating this 55-minute epic. They’ve made no bones about it in interviews and in person – they were dealing with some major life issues during the making of Safety In Numbers, from the incomprehensible death of a very close friend at the hands of a drunk driver, to love and life struggles, and beyond. This album feels almost cleansing at times, as they confront these subjects for all to interpret. The listener is the benefactor of this heartfelt impetus. Sometimes the worst of life can bring out the best in people.

As the band’s chief lyricist, Brendan Bayliss has always had a cryptically creative way with words, twisting his sentiments in a non-literal way but still managing to get his point across. There’s less of that on Safety in Numbers’ new tracks, as his feelings are tangible, loud and true. His devotional, string-laden “Rocker,” named for their departed friend’s descriptive nickname, is rightly full of vulnerable and confused feelings. The Joel Cummins-penned “Words” has a desperate feel that is spine-chilling from Bayliss’ opening lyric - “Speechless again, at a loss for words/they would not be heard anyway, would they?” Sandwiched between these tributes is Jake Cinninger’s twisty “Liquid,” an alternately hopeful and foreboding creation that ends with a chaotic crescendo that could be interpreted as the sound of an automobile accident.

While weighty, the album doesn’t simply focus on the depressing aspects of life. All facets are represented and given a proper musical frame ranging from sparse acoustic works to the charging electric rock that the band is known for. The pulsating “Believe the Lie” opens the disc with intense fervor and a taste of what seems to be vitriol for the current United States administration. After the hefty “Rocker/Liquid/Words” combo, the joyous “Nemo” surfaces, serving as a new beginning for the listener and presenting a potent sample of Bayliss’ crafty lyrical ability. Equally joyous is the current live barnburner “Women Wine and Song,” which finds rock veteran Huey Lewis joining in with vocals and harmonica. The guest contributions continue with saxophonist Joshua Redman making a tremendous contribution to the bittersweet “Intentions Clear,” nicely mimicking Bayliss’ vocals during a verse, and laying down a hot solo or two.

The instrumental “End of the Road” reveals a deeper diversity to the band’s talents, boasting nifty acoustic work and teeming strings. “End of the Road” serves as a prelude to the schizophrenic “Passing,” which dissipates into “Ocean Billy.” Long a juggernaut of the band’s live shows, this tightly-wound version begins with a nifty effect that makes the music seem as if it is emerging from a distant and ancient radio. Moody and cinematic, “Ocean Billy” is a prime example of the individual band member’s abilities rolled into one entity. Wrapping the album up on a succinctly open-ended note is “The Weight Around,” a slide-guitar laced acoustic tome to letting go and getting “patched up” from life’s frequent attacks.

Without abandoning the combustible, multi-syllabic rock that their fans have come to adore, Umphrey’s has incorporated an equally hard-hitting element – emotion – into this album. Together the combination is devastatingly satisfying, with each song standing on its own but coalescing easily into an unforgettable whole. Safety In Numbers, if I may paraphrase from its text, leaves me quite impressed.