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Umphrey’s McGee shows massive chops

Stewart Oksenhorn

Some recent missives from various corners of the jam-rock world.Umphrey’s McGee, “Anchor Drops”produced by (Sci Fidelity/Hanging Brains)Progressive rock, as epitomized by Yes, doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on the current music world. But there is Midwest band Umphrey’s McGee, who have taken those tenets of prog-rock – abrupt rhythmic shifts, sharp guitar hooks, symphonic density – as a primary building block.But Umphrey’s McGee doesn’t aim just to carry the progressive mantle further forward. If you listened only to “Bullhead City,” for instance, you might think the band was mining James Taylor rather than Yes. And there are even more ’70s touchstones, like Steely Dan and Frank Zappa, plus more recent ones, like Phish.The musicianship is impressive – guitarist Jake Cinninger has chops to drool over – and the breadth of styles more impressive still. But if you found progressive rock to be a cold repository of grandiose ideas, “Anchor Drops” may not land quite right.Gomez, “Split the Difference”

produced by Gomez with Tchad Blake (Virgin)A few years ago, I asked an acquaintance in the A&R realm of the record business – someone who’s job it was to find and develop new talent – what band he wished he had discovered. With no hesitation, he said Gomez, which had just released its debut CD, “Bring It On.”It seemed a smart call on his part at the time. Gomez was a young English band whose first CD showed infinite potential. “Bring It On” demonstrated roots in American blues and roots rock, but also played with sound and song structure in a way that presaged what Wilco has earned acclaim for since. But Gomez seemed to fizzle a bit, or at least never quite break through like they might have.On their fifth album, “Split the Difference,” Gomez still sounds fresh, and ready to burst to some level of stardom. The palette has gotten even broader. On “Me, You and Everybody” and “Sweet Virginia,” with their foundation of acoustic guitar and ragged-but-right harmonies, the sound has an alt-country feel, souped up by buzzing guitars. But in between the two is “We Don’t Know Where We’re Going,” which also opens with acoustic guitar but the rhythm is spikier, the tone is menacing punk, and there is a driving bass line. Most informative is the band’s woozy, outside-the-lines, slightly metallic take on Mississippi bluesman Junior Kimbrough’s “Meet Me in the City.”It’s hard for me to see why Gomez doesn’t earn a similar level of adoration as Wilco. But I’m glad to see they haven’t stopped trying.North Mississippi Allstars, “Instores & Outtakes”produced by Jim Dickinson (ATO)On this six-song EP, the North Mississippi Allstars put their modern blues-rock stamp on mostly cover tunes, including straight-up but enjoyable covers of the Rolling Stones’ “Stray Cat Blues” and the Band’s “The Weight.”

Like Gomez – a band that seems to have the same roots, but different interpretations of those influences – the No-Miss Allstars interpret Kimbrough’s “Meet Me in the City.” Their version is slow, breezy and stripped-down – just the opposite of what Gomez did with the song.Stockholm Syndrome, “Holy Happy Hour”produced by Dave Schools (Terminus)Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools produced this album and is the most recognizable name in the new, five-piece, semi-supergroup Stockholm Syndrome. But the one whose stamp can be most clearly heard on “Holy Happy Hour” – which also includes drummer Wally Ingram, keyboardist Danny Dziuk and guitarist Eric McFadden – is singer-guitarist Jerry Joseph, leader of the roots-rock band the Jackmormons. Joseph wrote or co-wrote the bulk of the material, much of which has a bitter taste to it. (“You know better than to try/Man just wasn’t meant to fly,” he sings on “Counter-Clock World”; “Ask me if I’m lying/Hell yeah, I’m lying” on “Empire One.”) And as there’s little extended jamming here, his twitchy, growling voice is the signature sound here.Stockholm Syndrome plays Aug. 8 at State Bridge Lodge near Bond.Big Fuzz, “Exercising the Demons”produced by Fuzz and Contagious (Harmonized Records)

Fuzz, singer and lead guitarist of semi-inactive soul-jam band Deep Banana Blackout, resurfaces on this solo project with his guitar a-blazing. The opening track, “Top of the Hill” is virtually all guitar work, ranging from the acoustic slide blues prologue to the hard and heavy electric solos that dominate the rest of the song. Fuzz taps into the more soulful sounds of Deep Banana Blackout on the horn-backed “Together” and the funky hand-clapper “Still Around,” but Fuzz’s voice doesn’t have the soulful quality to make this compelling.Deep Banana Blackout plays a reunion gig in the JAS After Dark series at Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival in September.Michael Franti, “Songs From the Front Porch”produced by Franti (Boo Boo Wax)As if Spearhead leader Michael Franti didn’t already have the whole package – songwriting, soulfulness, the ability to both rock the house and open eyes to what’s going on in the world, even height. On “Songs From the Front Porch” – released in 2002 but only in Australia – Franti reworks his songs, mostly from his “Stay Human” album, for acoustic guitar. In the new setting, a real contrast to his usual combination of soul and disco and rap, the songs find a whole new kind of charm. “Firefly” is rearranged as a jazzy samba; “Love’ll Set Me Free” is soft, built on flute and acoustic guitar; and “Stay Human” is gentle and sparkling, allowing the words of empowerment – “Every box got a right to be boomin’/… Every flower got a right to be bloomin'” – to come to the surface.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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