Initially riding to the mainstream on the wave that carried fellow alternative country acts like Wilco and Bright Eyes to the public?s ears, My Morning Jacket have, through their past couple albums, deftly eluded sonic type casting.
Front man and chief songwriter Jim James is amusingly agile at connecting weird imagery to lyrical snippets meditating on love, innocence, and the other usual suspects of the country canon. And it is this very adept sense of juxtaposition that shines brilliantly on MMJ?s newest album, Evil Urges.
But let’s back up a bit.
Their 2003 major label debut It Still Moves culled the best of what garnered their acclaim both at home and abroad from their first two albums, The Tennessee Fire and At Dawn (introspective tunes sung to a quiet, starry summer night cast across a subdued wash of traditional southern instruments: swells of lap steel washing over finger-picked guitar with the occasional harmonica wail) and took the country mouse sound and brought it charging to the city.
James still drowned his voice in reverb (notably recorded in a empty grain silo), but the band itself took it upon themselves to bolster the well crafted songs with classic rock bombast, igniting tunes such as ?Magheeta? and ?Run Thru? to incendiary levels.
Z followed in 2006, leaving those that had been weaned on their southern stylings a little nervous. Much of the acoustic honesty of the band?s core sound was left adrift on tunes built around synthesizers or drum loops. Surely James had lost none of his craft, but Z found him playing with in a new sonic sandbox and evidently having a blast. Consider ?Off the Record,? a upbeat song bolstered by a reggae influenced groove that would crash into spaced out jam before ebbing into the demented calliope sound of ?Into the Woods? which contains perhaps one of James?s stylistically telling lyrics: ?A kitten on fire/ a baby in a blender/ Both sound sweet/ as a night of surrender.?
The title track opens Evil Urges with a tight (live) drum groove and synth riff, but any fears the listener might have of the band?s southern sounds being overgrown by the wires of a studio are quickly allayed as the guitars gradually enter over subtle string swells.
Then perhaps the newest character to the My Morning Jacket sound enters which could be the biggest shock of the whole album: Jim James voice wails into the first verse, riding high and out front. Gone is the trademark echo chamber sound of the vocals, replaced instead by a bold assertion of falsetto singing. Let the Prince comparisons run wild. Over the course of the song, James?s voice trades places back and forth with the pinched, Grateful Dead-esque twin guitar lines as the loftiest element of the music. The band again asserts its staple sound midway through the song, dropping into a double time break for the guitars to stage a two barreled galloping riff that?ll leave concert-goers sorely missing the long haired locks of the newly groomed band.
The follow-up second track finds Jim James?s raising his freak flag a little higher up the poll. Comparisons to Wayne Coyne lung-full-of-pot-smoke voice has always dogged James?s vocal delivery among critics, but here we see the band following suit with ?Touch Me I?m Going to Scream Pt.1,? operating fiercely within the Flaming Lips vein. Live drums continue to mimic programmed beats while synth-keys and processed bass provide the digital slurps of electronica during the chorus, but we never venture too far from the roots planted back in the band?s earliest records; twangy finger picked guitar still remains at the center of the harmony.
The third song, ?Highly Suspicious? will surely be the most polarizing of songs to longtime fans. Thick distorted guitar hits and falsetto lyrics repeating ?Peanut butter pudding surprise? punctuated by Tigger-esque giggles might sound like capsule description of the new Ween single, but rather it defines the moment at which the listener will either dismiss or embrace this album. It is surely the furthest away from the group?s core sound, but this writer personally digs the song (while hoping the band remains vigilant against taking this type of song as the singular direction for its follow-up album. After all, there is a reason why Ween only includes one or two twisted rockers like this on each of their albums?).
To those who could swallow ?Highly Suspicious? and even keep chewing, the remainder of the album is their oyster, packed with pearls of songs that revel in the new wave southern nostalgia sound cultivated since the band?s inception. What?s most striking is that, after the triple fisted bizarre assault of the first three tracks, how comfortably the remainder of the album would fit with the band?s older material. Jangling guitars ride assertive bass and synth lines before crashing into classically structured country choruses. The album? first single, ?I?m Amazed,? could very well have been pulled from the It Still Moves sessions.
James even douses his voice in reverb (though never cocooning himself in a silo as before). Vocal harmonies and strings recall the transcendent country laid down during Neil Young?s Harvest sessions on ?Thank You Too!?. ?Librarian,? the minor keyed rumination on a beautiful librarian ensconced within the halls of books, might have even fit on At Dawn with its stripped down arrangement.
It should also be noted how well the tracks on this album are sequenced. While their past two albums were similarly conducive to the ?Just push play? approach, given the breadth of style hops they make, its impressive how well this album flows from beginning to end. The two most straight-ahead rocking tunes (minus the anomaly of ?Highly Suspicious?) in the set (?Aluminum Park? and ?Remnants?) are reserved until the final third of the album. Their past two albums have put the heavier tunes towards the middle (?Run Thru? and ?Off the Record? from It Still Moves and Z respectively) to keep the listener rolling through to the second side, but here, it seems to just work.
Mostly low-key songs inhabit the midsection of the album. It is truly indicative of James?s songwriting chops how well the quieter songs like ?Sec Walkin? and the aforementioned ?Librarian? keep the listeners attention. But it is this general lull that makes the resurgence of electric rocking most effective as the band bears down on the closing jam and bookend track ?Touch Me I?m Going to Scream Pt. 2,? an eight minute tune that recalls the epic ?Cobra? from the Chocolate and Ice EP.
The band has said repeatedly in interviews that they have little interest in making the same album with the same songs over and over. And yet it is a testament to their craft that they can retain their country stylings while transplanting them to places Neil Young could never have dreamed of. While the songs (and the bandmates themselves) might be leaving their shaggier aesthetics to their wake as the continue to record in the major label system, the discerning listener should be grateful that a band of this caliber can continue to make music true to themselves while stretching well beyond boundaries that might be imposed by their humble shoe/star gazing origins.
ZIP: My Morning Jacket-?Bonnaroo 2008, 6-13-08) (Left-Click)
Set I: Evil Urges, Off the Record, Gideon, Hot Fun (Sly & the Family Stone)* , Highly Suspicious, What a Wonderful Man, I?m Amazed, Thank You Too, Touch Me Pt 1, Sec Walkin, Golden, Two Halves, Laylow, Hit it and Quit it (Funkadelic), Tyrone (Erykah Badu), Steam Engine – with drum solo, Anytime, Aluminum Park, Easy Morning Rebel*, Dancefloors*, One Big Holiday**
Set II: Cold Sweat (James Brown)*, Get Down On It (Kool and the Gang)* , Across 110th Street (Bobby Womack & Peace)*, Phone Went West, Mahgeetah, Oh Sweet Nuthin (Velvet Underground), Librarian, Bermuda Highway#, Dondante, Run Thru, Smokin from Shootin, Touch Me Pt 2, Home Sweet Home (M?tley Cr?e)$