Music: Bottom Feeders

With 'The Bottom Half,' Umphrey's McGee gives fans quality leftovers from its last CD

Sep 15, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Danny Clinch

The odds-and-ends collection The Bottom Half features Umphrey McGee's first outside-the-band collaborations.

Brendan Bayliss said he'd never before heard the sentiment that his music goes well with warm weather, but the thought seems to please the Umphrey's McGee singer/guitarist. There's just something about the Chicago-based, so-called "jam band" and its diverse palette that inspires a sense of goodwill, perfect for driving somewhere with the top down in anticipation of some kind of outdoor revelry — even if a given song's subject matter is decidedly less than upbeat.

Although Bayliss freely described the personal woe that inspired much of McGee's well-received 2006 CD Safety in Numbers, he stopped well short of repudiating the above approach in favor of paying more attention to the lyrics.

"I really don't care — I just want people to like it," Bayliss says from his Chicago home. "For one person, (the music means) one thing. For another, it's something else. Our bass player doesn't know any of the lyrics and he likes the songs."

McGee's newest record, The Bottom Half, is a two-disc offering. The first features 10 tracks that didn't make it onto Safety in Numbers, while the second features an eclectic series of session outtakes, a cappella recordings and alternative versions of songs from both records. Bayliss agrees it's appropriate to view the new album as a kind of director's cut DVD version of Safety in Numbers.

The Bottom Half also represents the first time the band opened their songwriting process to outside collaborators. The 1980s-style dance track "Bright Lights, Big City" (which could have conceivably been featured on the Footloose soundtrack) was written by their friend and fellow musician Karl Engelmann. Also, while on tour with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, McGee exchanged ideas with the banjo legend, producing collaborations such as the instrumental "Great American," with Fleck picking the melody while the band backs him with piano, acoustic guitars and bongos.

For Bayliss and his bandmates, the most important result of The Bottom Half was a new beginning. The band was going through some emotionally trying times before heading into the studio to record Safety in Numbers.

"Long story short, I had a marriage that didn't work out," Bayliss says. "It wasn't anyone's fault. Life just happens. And then one of our best friends was killed in an accident."

So the album's title became a protective mantra?

"Exactly," Bayliss says. "You get your boys around you."

So although the overlap between Safety and The Bottom Half was partially due to the sheer volume of songs, Bayliss says the band was also anxious to make a major thematic shift.

"Fundamentally, we had too many songs and it was just impossible," he says. "But you can see how the songs (on Half) wouldn't have worked on Safety in Numbers, which was kind of a 'woe is me' record. They just wouldn't have gelled. We were going through a phase and we don't need to go there anymore. We're a Rock band, and we hope we're done with melancholy."

Conservative McGee fans should be pleased with The Bottom Half. All of the familiar traits are back: the instrumentals, the trickling guitar lines, the down-home warmth and, of course, the wide variety of genres and styles the band typically deploys. Fans will find tunes informed by Jazz, Blues, Country, Bluegrass and Electronica, among others, all done with an accessible Rock vibe. One instrumental on Anchor Drops wouldn't sound out of place on a Trans-Siberian Orchestra album.

The Bottom Half quickly assaults listeners with the title track, which packs elements of Funk, Reggae and Hard Rock into one nearly six-minute smorgasbord. Reggae in particular is pervasive throughout the album. While Bayliss notes that he's heard that observation before, he says it wasn't a conscious strategy.

"The writing process just happens, it falls together," he says. "There's something to be taken from everything. The wider your palette, the wider your vocabulary."

That being said, even though the band has come a long way from recording live sets featuring songs in the 10-12 minute range and preemptively distributing them in untapped markets where they planned to perform, Bayliss rejects the notion that they're now attempting to become more mainstream.

"I think it would be hard for us to sell records in the Pop scene," he says. "I don't think we'd benefit. We've already started a new album that is probably the least accessible. There won't be any acoustic guitars or sad, slow songs. It's going to be more aggressive, more progressive, like grandiose fireworks. You just have to be true to yourself and hope people like it. I've never been wrong before."

Which brings us to the infamous "jam band" label, which many groups thus tagged strongly dislike. For Bayliss, whose band has been saddled with it since almost the very beginning, the label produces mixed feelings.

"It has a negative connotation because it's associated with jamming and noodling and not actually having songs," he says. "We're trying to write songs. When you're associated with a jam band, some people are quick to shrug it off because they think they know what that sounds like. There are some positives. The scene is massive and it's helped give us a career. We haven't had a real job in a while."

UMPHREY'S MCGEE performs at the Taft Theatre on Saturday.