Taking into account the titles in Umphrey's McGee's discography -- their 1998 debut Greatest Hits Volume III, 1999's live Songs for Older Women and 2002's Local Band Does OK -- it's obvious the Chicago jam band has made a point of not taking themselves too seriously. But with their new studio album, Safety in Numbers, Umphrey's may be changing their tone.
While the group had plans to create a concept double-album, one disc acoustic and one electric, Umphrey's plans changed early last year with the death of keyboardist Joel Cummins' "bestest friend not in the band" in a New Year's drunk-driving accident. "Some things just don't make sense," says Cummins. "There was too much grief. So the best thing we can do is put that into music."
Sonically, Numbers wrestles with both the recent tragedy and the band's signature funk-infused improvisations. Numbers' strongest songs address Cummins' loss -- as on the reverb-swelling "Words" and the moody "Rocker." "The feeling is not weathered out just yet/ There's no real way to describe it/ In thinking of all the plans unmet/ We've all been hardened to hide it," singer/guitarist Brendan Bayliss sings on the track.
While the band typically road-tests its new material -- to the delight of their hippie, bootleg-loving audience -- Numbers would become an eleven-track single CD of original material that the band kept completely to themselves. Cummins, Bayliss, guitarist Jake Cinninger, bassist Ryan Stasik, drummer Kris Myers and percussionist Andy Farag all holed up in Chicago's Gravity Studios, where they mixed their last record, 2004's Anchor Drops, to lay down the tracks with their longtime sound engineer Kevin Browning.
"Our live show has been our bread and butter in the past," Cummins explains. "We want to explore the studio just as much as a vital creative element as we do the live show." Recording songs that had never been played in front of an audience put the band in new terrain. "There's an element of newness and surprise," Cummins says of the results.
Other tracks on the record include the bluesy "Women, Wine and Song," which features Huey Lewis on harmonica and backing vocals, and "Liquid," which recalls the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" through its mix of playfulness with heavier undertones. And on the album opener the boys couldn't resist drawing on their live show: The song, "Believe the Lie," was taken from a 2004 jam at Otto's in Dekalb, Illinois. "That's a whole way of writing where we actually can accomplish songwriting live," says Cummins.
To convey the dreamier feel of the album, the band tapped artist Storm Thorgerson, who designed the iconic cover of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon --and, more recently, that of Audioslave's debut -- to come up with Numbers' look. Thorgerson created a photo montage of a sheep sleeping in bed while humans graze on the lawn outside its window.
In addition to the playfulness of their new album cover, Cummins believes Umphrey's held onto their lighter side through a poignant use of . . . the melodica. "It's one of those instruments that I'm very careful with," he says of bringing the Fisher-Price-like keyboard/harmonica out on tour. "There is a melodica tolerance level, and you don't want to go over that quota . . . It's one of those things where it's just hard to take someone seriously when they're playing it."
So maybe Umphrey's haven't really changed that much after all.