Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review: Umphrey's McGee - "Mantis"

Published on February 12, 2009 in The Red & Black


Let me state it as loudly and clearly as I can: Umphrey's McGee is NOT a jam band.

Even though the Chicago quartet's live performances are filled with double-digit songs and extensive improvisation, its music is too advanced and chameleonic to truly be pigeonholed as "jam," bearing a closer resemblance to progressive rock.

Its new album "Mantis" departs from previous studio efforts. This time around, the songs actually originated in the studio, in contrast to the band's usual practice of testing new material on tour.

The result is Umphrey's least "jammy" record yet, focusing on colossal, elaborately orchestrated epics that find the group shifting gears more times in a single song than most bands can manage in the span of an entire record.

The two-part "Cemetery Walk" boasts a slick, gliding groove and the catchiest chorus of the record, while "Spires" channels the clear-eyed Southern rock of My Morning Jacket and resolves it into a mellifluous string-laden coda.

The 11+ minute title track is the album's nucleus. A wildly diverse, multi-movement odyssey, "Mantis" touches on everything from irregularly metered prog-metal riffs to blistering guitar solos equal parts Eddie Van Halen and David Gilmour, hazy psychedelia and arms-outstretched instrumental climaxes.

But Umphrey's McGee tempers its grandiose ambitions with a handful of concise, polished numbers.

Of these, "1348" and "Prophecy Now" are the most successful. The former melds Les Claypool funk-bass with manic, pseudo-Rush vigor, while the latter plays like a reticent TV on the Radio song.

"Made to Measure" struts along to menacing soft-shoe, which makes for a perplexing album leadoff. But the ensuing choir of dreamy, ethereal guitars leaves a disarming impression.

The only shortcoming on "Mantis" is the lyrical content. Frontman Brendan Bayliss is a proficient guitarist, but most of his lyrics are hackneyed and predictable, running the serious risk of alienating potential new listeners.

Carrying Umphrey's McGee further into the progressive realm, "Mantis" teems with musical ideas and diverse styles that should easily please any fan of dynamic rock music.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Review: Andrew Bird - "Noble Beast"

Published on January 29, 2009 in The Red & Black


On "Noble Beast," Bird dials down the volume, exploring a quiet, leisurely channel of songwriting he hinted at on previous albums but never fully embraced.

As the pastoral album art suggests, the songs that comprise "Noble Beast" sport a style steeped in the folk tradition, unfolding at a serene pace.

Unfortunately, this method will not likely capture new listeners' attention, or please those expecting the more elaborate side of Bird seen on "Armchair Apocrypha" and "The Mysterious Production of Eggs."

This aside, the quality of the album's material cannot be ignored. Bird weaves a variety of instruments into his songs, adding subtle nuance. The solemn, elegant "Effigy" begins with tense, uneasy violin that drifts around an accordion dirge, and "Masterswarm" is propelled by a faint Latin rhythm, echoed in the prominent use of the guiro.

Perhaps not the best leadoff candidate, "Oh No" is pleasant but not quite remarkable - its whistled melody not enough to truly distinguish it from the pack.

After a deceptive beginning, "Nomenclature" provides the first truly blistering moment, with strands of distorted guitar and violin tearing through a frantic drum earthquake. After the brief lull of "ouo," "Not a Robot, But a Ghost" stands as the utterly intense centerpiece of an otherwise placid musical tapestry.

The remainder of "Noble Beast" continues peacefully, with the sorrowful, downbeat epic "Souverian" being the most memorable of the cut, and Bird's signature lyrical wordplay finally shines forth on "Anonanimal."

Each of "Noble Beast"'s 14 songs is masterfully composed and arranged, yet so professionally executed that it blends into an immaculate but not quite captivating whole.

But for all of Bird's preoccupations with arrangement and structure - a not-so-unusual trait for classically trained musicians - "Noble Beast" benefits from a natural, almost rustic aura stemming from its refreshingly relaxed pace.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Check out my NEW blog project!

Follow the link below:

My Rhetorical Analysis of Apple.com

I put a LOT of effort into this, especially with tweaking the HTML/template design, etc. etc.  Now as soon as I have some more energy, I'll start changing things around on this blog layout too...