(Nothing Too Fancy Music)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Leave it to an act who named their 1998 debut Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 to create this crazy quilt, innovative and unique mash-up of disparate songs, played live. Taking a concept initially conceived during Umphrey’s McGee’s Halloween shows to the studio, the sextet displays their wildly diverse influences and inspirations by grabbing parts of two, three and sometimes four tunes, cutting and pasting them together, and performing the result with no overdubs, without a net, in the studio.
Gimmicky? Sure. But also crazily creative and musically intoxicating as in “Life During Exodus,” just one of the dozen tracks named after the songs included. That one crams Marley’s “Exodus,” the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime,” Zappa’s “City of Tiny Lites” and even Chicago’s “24 or 6 to 4” into a jaw dropping nine minutes that never feel forced or, worse yet, pretentious. There aren’t many bands who have heard the catalogs of both Motorhead and Ween, and fewer still who would bother covering either one, let alone both in “Ace of Long Nights” that jams the former’s “Ace of Spades” and the latter’s “It’s Gonna Be a Long Night” into a severe but somehow beautiful musical matrimony. Umphrey’s McGee is as comfortable with hard rockers like White Zombie and Rage Against the Machine as with 80s synth poppers such as the Eurythmics and Dead or Alive and digging into the classic rock catalog of Pink Floyd and AC/DC. They grab entire sections of songs and smash ‘em into each other resulting in a wild synthesis that (usually) sounds logical and even natural.
But creating the concept is different than pulling it off, which is where McGee shows their remarkable instrumental dexterity. There aren’t many acts able to shift from reggae to pop, hard rock, soul and prog with an ease that shows how much they love and respect these incongruent genres. Once you get past the “how did they think of that?” question, you are amazed by the “how did they do that?” part.
Zonkey is little more than a side trip for Umphrey’s McGee, but it’s an insightful example of the band’s restless nature. It’ll also send many listeners back to some of the originals (several quite obscure like the Beastie Boys’ “Mark on the Bus” and their own “Hajimemashite”) to hear what they might have missed, which makes this an educational experience too. It works on a variety of levels but ultimately is just another example of Umphrey’s McGee considerable talents and whets our appetites for the group’s next release of original material.