Hearing Aide: Umphrey’s McGee’s “Similar Skin”
For a band that has been around since 1998 and thrives mainly in the live setting, Umphrey’s McGee has pivoted focus ever so slightly with the release of Similar Skin, and in doing so, launched their own music label, Nothing Too Fancy Music.
Past albums have marked eras of the band’s collective psyche, such as Anchor Drops marking their presence as the next major jam band, Safety in Numbers recorded as band members began shifting outward from their familiar post-college surroundings, and Death by Stereo which followed the band’s rise and establishment of their influential prog-meets-jam sound. On Similar Skin, these children of the 80’s wear their heroes on their musical sleeve, channeling influences and well honed song-writing skills into their own unique sound, bridging two generations and putting forth their best studio effort since 2004’s Anchor Drops.
The first six tracks of Similar Skin set the tone for what stands to be Umphrey’s finest studio material. “The Linear”, leading with a haunting hook from Ryan Stasik’s recurring bass groove frames the song, while Brendan Bayliss’ lyrics are some of the his best in recent years: “I got a little more now that I had before, if you take it all back I’d still have more”, a forward-looking view on progressing through life.
“Cut the Cable”, opening with Bayliss singing the refrain alongside acoustic guitar, erupts into a fierce classic prog-rock song that could fit in among the sounds of bands from the 1980s who have a profound influence on Umphrey’s sound, one that is firmly rooted as their own on Similar Skin. Soaring guitar from Jake Cinninger adds depth to the track, with overlapping vocals from Bayliss rounding out what should develop and expand nicely in the live setting.
“Hourglass” has a pure 80s synth rock vibe, akin to Australian band Icehouse while “No Diablo” could double as a Huey Lewis and The News song. Title track “Similar Skin” begins with a tribal drum intro from Kris Myers and contains lyrics that spell out a maturing look at the world as the band enters their 16th year playing and writing music together. There is deeper meaning behind the line “We all begin with a similar skin / that will evaporate”, as Bayliss notes, “We’re all the same thing, come from the same place, will all end up at the same place. All this bickering and conflict in the world…does it even matter?”, an assessment that is both poignant and wise.
“Puppet String”, one of the best all-around songs Umphrey’s has written, finds its way from stage to studio, translating well and leaving an impression on listeners who may be used to 10 minute+ versions of this true rocker; the band is fully dialed in when reaching these peaks. While a bit hard and heavy, “Little Gift” has a hint of Def Leppard, particularly due to Jake Cinninger’s vocals. The hyper and at times erratic “Educated Guess” seems like an amalgamation, pieced together from leftover lyrics and riffs, and while complicated it is worth a few listens.
The arching guitar crescendos throughout “Loose Ends” are matched by soaring vocals. The heavy “Hindsight” has a Helmet-like guitar groove alongside Cinninger’s lyrics; Umphrey’s occasionally tries to be a metal band, but it doesn’t always work. Final track “Bridgeless”, a classic live number, is finally brought to the studio setting. With alarm-inspiring guitar riffs, “Bridgeless” is always a crowd pleaser when played live and works well to round out Similar Skin.
Included in the bonus materials on the album are “Morning Song” and “Room to Breathe”, two songs that shine in the live setting and both of which work well in the studio. “FF” from a private show at last month’s Summer Camp, Bayliss’ commentary on “Similar Skin” and the isolated vocals of “The Linear”, among other studio gems, make the exclusive material well worth the pre-order. An interview with Scott Hannay, who makes 8bit versions of Umphrey’s songs, dubbed Umphrey’s McNES is linked in the bonus material, as well as an 8bit version of “The Linear”
Overall, Similar Skin has all the markings of a premiere studio album, with little to disagree with among these 11 tracks. If you’re interested in purchasing the album or checking out all of the various packages Umphrey’s is offering along with it, click here.
Key Tracks: The Linear, Cut the Cable, Similar Skin, Puppet String
Catch Umphrey’s McGee this summer in the Northeast:
August 2 – Bridgeport, CT – Gathering of the Vibes
August 7 – Burlington, VT – Maritime Festival
August 8 – Hampton Beach, NH – Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom
August 9 – Upper Darby, PA – Tower Theater
August 10 – Asbury Park, NJ – Stone Pony Summerstage