In the studio, improv-rock groups are usually forced to walk a fine line between playing to their core audience’s long-form expectations while showcasing their songwriting skills. Give Umphrey’s credit, then, for paring this lean, mean baby down to the bone. Death By Stereo turns out to be a crunchy CliffsNotes to one of the Midwest’s last great hard-rock heroes. Boasting the geographical roots they do, it shouldn’t come as a shock that the six subtle shredders comprising the Chicago-based group owe a larger debt to the likes of Journey, Kansas and Bob Seger than do their colleagues on the granola circuit. (Cue the cowbell heard throughout “Domino Theory.”)
Released nearly three years after their 2009 tour de force, Mantis, Umphrey’s eighth studio album finds them distilling the Reagan years into 10 songs so cleanly burnished to a fine chrome finish that its first guitar solo doesn’t appear until three tracks in…and it’s a bass romp! Beginning with “Miami Virtue,” a tricky yet tidy prog-pop treat, through live power-ballad staple “Hajimemashite,” there’s nothing too fancy for Umphrey initiates here. While Umph’s knack for in-the-pocket trance is evoked in “Booth Love,” “Search 4″ marks the only moment when the group even begins to consider stretching out. Guitarist Jake Cinninger’s acoustic showcase “Dim Sun,” for example, provides less than a two-minute breather ahead of “Deeper”‘s Bowie-esque funk mit strings. Cinninger and fellow guitarist Brendan Bayliss’s words are once again little more than lyrical Rohrschach tests, but dig the piss and vinegar lurking in gripes such as, “I feel like I been shoppin’ ‘tiques/ It’s the same shit, it still stinks.” Spacey yet down to earth, Umphrey’s McGee continues to make memorable Midwestern magic.