Album reviews: Superchunk, Umphrey's McGee, T.J. Miller - Reverb

Album reviews: T.J. Miller, Superchunk, Umphrey’s McGee

Umphrey's McGee at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Photo by Lisa Higginbotham, heyreverb.com.

Umphrey's McGee at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Photo by Lisa Higginbotham, heyreverb.com.

Umphrey’s McGee, “Death By Stereo” (ATO Records)

With the release of “Death By Stereo,” Umphrey’s Mcgee’s first album on ATO Records, the Chicago sextet solidifies itself as one of the most talented experimental rock acts in the market.

After 2009’s “Mantis,” a progressive journey of genius inaccessible to those not attune to the band’s heavy edge, “Stereo” finds Umphrey’s returning to its grooving roots while also experimenting with Black Keys-inspired blues-rock and other genres.

The ’70s-era funk anthem “Booth Love” is a highlight, filled with full harmonies, driving bass, and the surprising use of horns. Live trademarks like “Conduit” and “Hajimemashite” get tightly-produced makeovers, while “Pushing Daisies” breaks up the album with a brief, pleasant acoustic number.

Don’t be fooled, “Stereo” is still a prog-rock powerhouse. The album is deeply rooted in the shredding, dueling guitar work of Brendon Bayliss and Jake Cinninger and anchored by the heavy-hitting, double-bass drumming of Kris Meyers. “The Floor” finds the band exploring territory that could be mistaken for the cerebral writing of Tool while the polyrhythmic feels in “Search 4” leave the listener constantly searching.

Furthermore, the band continues to explore the most modern of distribution methods. For all who pre-order “Stereo,” the band is offering access to a live in-studio webcast that will “grow in size and scope when certain sales thresholds are attained.” –Nate Etter

T.J. Miller, “The Extended Play E.P.” (Comedy Central Records)

The best musical comedy, from “Weird Al” Yankovic to the “Saturday Night Live”-aided tunes of the Lonely Island, is united by replay value —- which can be a challenge, since so much of its power comes from the element of surprise.

That’s not a problem on T.J. Miller’s first release for Comedy Central Records. The Denver native, recently seen in goofy flicks such as “Yogi Bear,” “Get Him to the Greek” and “Our Idiot Brother,” is an intimidatingly talented stand- up (he taped his first Comedy Central special at the Boulder Theater in May) and his style translates well to the punchy, catchy folk-rap on “The Extended Play E.P.”

The album feels homemade and stitched together in the best ways, its compressed beats and cheap synths leading a tour of Miller’s crowded funhouse of a brain.

His rhymes on early track “T.J. Miller” —- “I’m like Home Depot; if I can’t flow, there’s Hispanics out front ready to go” —- are nimble and knowing, even if it takes a little time to get on his wavelength. Other songs (“Cloverfield Secrets,” “Denver”) require a bit of inside knowledge to appreciate fully.

As with any good comedy album, the jokes are everywhere, including in the title. Calling something with 40 tracks an “E.P.” is as absurd as it gets. –John Wenzel

Superchunk, “Foolish” (reissue) (Merge)

Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance spend most of their time these days co-running Merge Records —- the label of Arcade Fire, Spoon and dozens more. But throughout the label’s 22-year history, they’ve never stopped ripping it up in the punk-indebted guitar outfit Superchunk.

The Chapel Hill, N.C., band is as inspiring in its DIY ethic as its roiling energy, and the reissue of its 1994 album “Foolish” is a reminder of that giddy time in indie rock, as well as a guide for bands looking to diversify without losing edge.

The reissue wisely avoids remastering Brian Paulson’s recordings with too much bass, since much of the album’s power comes from its tight, tinny presentation and saw- like guitars. Mid-tempo stompers such as “The First Part” and “Driveway to Driveway” prove McCaughan’s way with figure-eight melodies, while “Water Wings” and “Saving My Ticket” inject strained pop into Jon Wurster’s hyperactive percussion and Jim Wilbur’s distorted riffs.

Downloadable live recordings, rehearsal takes and acoustic B-sides sweeten the deal, but really, there’s no bad reason to revisit “Foolish.”

It stands as Superchunk’s moodiest ’90s statement, and one that shows a band unafraid to polish some rough edges while leaving its punk spirit gloriously intact. –John Wenzel

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John Wenzel is an executive editor of Reverb and an award-winning A&E reporter for The Denver Post. He is the author of “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” (Speck Press/Fulcrum) and maintains a Twitter feed of completely random song titles and band names.

Nate Etter is a Boulder-based musician and a regular contributor to Reverb.

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  • http://www.kylewbaker.com baker

    Yo – FYI regarding the Death By Stereo review, “Pushing Daisies” was a working title for the track that was finally titled “Dim Sun.”

    Just in case that confused anyone out there…