Safety In Numbers is the band’s third studio release and a follow-up to their genre-crossing Anchor Drops, which along with their incessant touring brought them national attention. They had originally gone into the studio planning on making both an acoustic and an electric album, but their work was shaped by the tragic loss of their friend Brian Schulz, who was killed by a drunk driver after their New Year’s Eve 2004 gig. This, in combination with what the press release calls “personally emotional” issues of guitarist and vocalist Brendan Bayliss that appear to be relationship-based from the lyrics of “Intentions Clear” and “The Weight Around”, created the prism through which this album was focused.
As “Believe The Lie” opens the album, the listener is pulled in quickly by the song’s up-tempo pace. Instead of fading in, the song has already begun, creating the sensation of arriving at a party where a childhood friend you haven’t seen in ages grabs you by the hand and yells, “Let’s go!” You are off and running to some unknown adventure before you have had a chance to get your bearings. The chorus slows down as the lyrics become contemplative. The tempo picks back up on the bridges and includes some fret work that is one of many nods on the album to Eddie Van Halen.
Schulz is directly paid tribute in two songs. Bayliss’ “Rocker” captures the denial before acceptance, beginning with “I’m still not able to understand/I’m struggling here to deny it”, then the realization of opportunities forever missed sets in during the chorus, “And all these things we’ve held on left unspoken/Still the thought’s enough to make me choke again”. The band’s first use of string arrangements adds elegance and poignancy. On “Words” by pianist Joel Cummins, guitarist Jake Cinninger, and Bayliss the memories of a lost friend provides strength and guidance as “Your words occur to me sometime/Align the reason why we’re here.”
I have seen the band three times in concert, so I had heard versions of “Believe the Lie,” “Nemo,” “Ocean Billy,” and “Women Wine and Song” before even though Charley Rogulewski of Rolling Stone Online claims Safety is “an eleven-track single CD of original material that the band kept completely to themselves.” The songs sound much better after being performed and reworked on the road. “Nemo” is an improvement from when I first heard it on 12/4/04. The music is much more lively than I remember. The first bridge has a wild guitar solo and the second has the guitar and Cummin’s tinkling piano keys blending well, momentarily reminding me of The Grateful Dead.
“Women Wine and Song” has a toe-tapping, honky-tonk sound while continuing the serious nature of the album’s theme. Guest Huey Lewis leads the intro on harmonica while the piano playfully follows along. The lyrics point out that “Life’s junk will suck the will right out you”; however, it passes on the wise advice that “Women Wine and Song/Will make you all move along to a lovely beat”. Lewis’ soulful voice leads the group vocals on a chorus so infectious that the audience will be singing along night after night. It should be a single off the album.
“Intensions Clear” finds Umphrey’s joined by another guest, saxophone player Joshua Redman, who they had previously jammed with at Bonnaroo. His horn fits in so seamlessly that you would think he was a member of the band. The song ends and two minutes of some odd, spacey sounds run before the acoustic instrumental “End of the Road”, a song that reminded me of the beautiful guitar pieces by Van Halen and Jimmy Page that would sneak their way onto bombastic rock records.
The band uses the studio to full effect. “Liquid,” a tale of growing up and the loss of childhood fears, has very interesting sounds that bring to mind a child’s toy. The song closes with a wild ending that combines elements similar to the crescendo of The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life” with the broken-down calliope from “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite!” “Ocean Billy” sounds like it’s playing through a mono speaker before the fidelity is normalized and the powerful, rocking beat comes thumping out of the speakers.
While their previous effort had a youthful exuberance, Safety In Numbers has a focused maturity. This album was much more serious than expected, but it is certainly understandable under the circumstances. Their growth as artists is on display as they allow the audience a peek inside their lives. The party isn’t over, but it’s not always running 24 hours.