I’ve only owned two studio albums by Umphrey’s McGee. The first, Local Band Does O.K., and more recently Similar Skin. If you were to ask me back then what was my favorite thing about Umphrey’s, without hesitation I would have answered, “Their live performances.” Recently fresh off of my first Summer Camp Music Festival experience, if you were to ask that very same question, my answer would be the same, but with the release of Similar Skin their studio capabilities have far exceeded expectations giving that debate, studio versus live, much more substance. Where most bands fail, particularly those labeled as jam bands, is in being able to translate the energy, creativity, feel, sound, and emotion from their live performances into your standard packaged record – a consistent, holistic collection of tracks that complement one another while able to stand alone. With their recent release of Similar Skin, it’s safe to say Umphrey’s have found their way.
Umphrey’s has always been more rock than anything else. Similar Skin is evidence of their admiration and creative ability to function within the genre while deconstructing and restructuring its definition. Every song on the album, with possible arguments against “No Diablo,” is straight up and down driving rock and a little bit of roll.
Although some of the songs on the album have previously been played in various live performances, they take on a whole new life when arranged in a studio. The space and time allotted for making a studio album allows you to tweak every note, clean up any pauses, make sure the acoustics are sound, but most of all record a song until you are satisfied. With the start of their Nothing Too Fancy label, Umphrey’s had more freedom than ever to make sure the sounds they were producing were the best they could.
Opening with a shortened “The Linear,” you can hear the crispness in the sound. Not to mention there’s something pleasant and appealing about having a structured single just as there is an appeal in live jam improvisation. The duality in the two, if done correctly, enhances the listen-ability of the other. A fitting follow-up, “Cut The Cable,” really begins the rock of Umphrey’s that Umphreaks adore. The heavy metal instrumental interplay mixed in with the ever so improved vocals and lyrics of Bayliss, along with the harmonies, are enticing. Next is “No Diablo,” a song with rock-pop tendencies, taking a page out of Phish’s book with their album The Story of the Ghost and songs like “Limb by Limb.” It’s a song that gives those who are lending an ear to Umphrey’s McGee for the first time a tune they could get behind – not too heavy, not too jammy, just in the middle with good lyrics and surprisingly better than usual vocal interchange.
The album continues through its musical rollercoaster pit stopping at fan favorites such as the title track, “Puppet String,” and “Educated Guess.” Similar Skin does have a couple weak points. “Little Gift,” and “Hindsight, which give a nod to the Pantera days and hair metal, vocal tonality, lyrics and all, do nothing to compliment the rest of the songs. For lack of better words, they are songs we could do without. Regardless, holistically, Similar Skin is exactly what we wanted and more from Umphrey’s – a tip of the hat and a golf clap for their continuous efforts. “Bridgeless” closes out the album. You couldn’t ask for better track placement throughout. You couldn’t ask for a better closer than “Bridgeless.”
MVP: “Educated Guess”