Proggy Went A-Jammin’


Progressive rock and metal’s double-clutching, gnat-note precision smashes headlong into the jamband clan’s urge to luxuriate in the never-ending now on Chicago sextet Umphrey’s McGee’s delightfully titled Local Band Does O.K. It’s the jam scene’s sleeper of the year, topping Trey Anastasio‘s artful white-funk affirmative action effort, the Disco Biscuits’ joyously disturbed Señor Boombox, and Lake Trout’s moody, Radiohead-tuned Another One Lost. Despite the Onion-y package (and where do the kids come up with their wacky band names?), false modesty taints only the surface of Umphrey’s fourth self-released album since 1998, following Greatest Hits, Vol. 3; Songs for Older Women; and One Fat Sucka.

Local Band opens with the snarling Aerosmithing riffs of “Andy’s Last Beer,” which quickly downshift into lilting verses. The album draws most of its considerable and unceasing energy from the disjunction of metal and melody. Its most prominent instrumental voice belongs to Jake Cinninger, a demonically fast guitarist of countless ideas capable of turning corners on a dime. Second guitarist Brendan Bayliss is almost as flashy. But the band as a whole rocks like a perpetually recalibrated clock, and Cinninger—who composes most of Umphrey’s material—is their perpetually motivated mainspring.

Zappa, Yes, Phish, and moe.—with their various ratios of raw and cooked, seriosity and humor—seem the most notable touchstones for a group that demystifies complexity for the dancing masses. Worked-out tunes such as “White Man’s Moccassins,” “Prowler,” and “Hurt Bird Bath” alternate with simpler statements such as “Headphones & Snowcones,” with its jazzy marimba and trumpet, and the dubby “Blue Echo.” The album ends with its single “jammed-out” track, “Nothing Too Fancy,” which suggests a speedball take on naive progger Captain Beefheart’s “Alice in Blunderland.” At this point, no one else on the jam scene, with the arguable exception of Garaj Mahal, is doing anything else as ambitiously musical as Umphrey’s McGee. Call it fusion if you want; they’d probably be too polite to correct you.