My Morning Jacket – [Album]

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

My Morning Jacket records have always been "creepers" for me; meaning that they take a while to "sink in" and be fully appreciated. This is not a complaint as I thoroughly enjoy being surprised by what I missed in earlier listens and further enjoy the moment of epiphany where the album suddenly emerges. This "creeper" characteristic has become even more prominent in recent years as the band has strayed far away from the mellow, reverb-heavy sound of their earlier work and into the more experimental sounds that defined 2005's Z and 2008's Evil Urges. On Circuital, the band has arrived at a more common ground that encompasses elements of both their experimental and mellower songwriting style and, while this makes Circuital feel more inherently familiar and accessible, I still wish I could write this review six months from now, because I fear that my initial perceptions will seem juvenile once this album has had time to settle and reveal itself. That said, reader beware – this review is strictly a collection of my initial thoughts and I will not be held accountable for them in November.

To start, Circuital would sound best on vinyl, not just because it is sonically best suited to that format, but because it seems to have two distinct sides; the first side being more serious and more reminiscent of their earlier work, while the second side a little lighter and more reflective of some of the quirks from their more recent material. "Holdin' on to Black Metal," which is an album highlight, is the best example of this quirkier approach as it was influenced by a Sixties Thai pop compilation and sees singer Jim James singing in falsetto over a wild groove, stuttering guitars, horn accents and a choir of backing vocals. Also of note on the second side is the album closer "Movin' Away,” which sees James sounding very "George Harrison" – clearly a carryover from his Yim Yames tribute EP to the late Beatle. Those moments are undoubtedly standouts, but the best moments on Circuital are where the efforts of the band as a whole are showcased and this definitely evident on the record's opening tracks "Victory Dance" and "Circuital,” which are sprawling rockers that focus as much on the band's unique contributions as James' reverb-soaked vocals. In recent press, it has been explained that the band named the album after their process of recording live in a circle, facing each other and, on these opening tracks as well as on "First Light" and "Holdin' on to Black Metal" one really gets the sense that they had a blast recording in this manner. It's that enthusiasm which makes the songs and the album so exciting.

Seeing that Circuital is only ten songs in length and given the elusive quality of some of the band's songs, I am hesitant to discuss what I consider flaws, but there are certainly a few moments that seem weak on as the album plays through. Songs like "The Day Is Coming" and "Outta My System" both seem to burn out pretty quickly and "You Wanna Freak Out" is anticlimactic in that it never really freaks out or inspires me to freak out as the title suggests. All that being said, these could be the songs that emerge as great with repeated listens, so I will tread lightly and reserve further comment for a later date.

As with all My Morning Jacket records, Circuital is an album that begs for repeated listens. Having played through it attentively several times already, I can confidently say that it is a record which will round out my summer playlist and give it a shot of occasionally unexpected and refreshing weirdness. While this album is largely another departure from why I started listening to My Morning Jacket in the first place, it does contain all of the elements that keep me listening and, because of that, I look forward to the surprises in it that I have yet to find.



Circuital is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .


My Morning Jacket – [Album]

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

There are some things that bands do in the span of their careers that – no matter how you look at it – are simply beyond comprehension. If one looks at it objectively, it happens all the time; outside of the current deluge of major label acts recently ditching their major label distribution deals (including Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and, most recently, Paul Westerberg) and electing to do it for themselves, about thirty-three years ago Lou Reed confounded both critics and fans by releasing the caustic song cycle Metal Machine Music and thus setting his career back about a decade. Quizzically, country-fried Canadian rock warhorse Neil Young sent Crazy Horse to the showers for a couple of years and tried his hand at being a lounge singer with Shocking Pinks, and Stray Gators. Liz Phair got sick of trying to recapture the critical adulation she won with Exile In Guyville and turned pop as did Robert Plant around 1988, and in spite of everyone within earshot’s objections, Agnostic Front traded the straight edge for the metal one. Why? Who knows – a muse is a terrible thing to waste and musicians have been known to follow them even if it means a dip in album sales.

My Morning Jacket has always been possessed of a significant classic rock stripe and now, like so many of those acts that they’ve paid lip service to, they have also arched a hairpin turn into unexpected territory with Evil Urges.

Bearing little resemblance to their prior output, Evil Urges is My Morning Jacket’s surprisingly competent turn toward and R&B/pop jones that no fan could have reasonably assumed the band had and, while it might not be the easiest thing for long-time fans to hear, it could have been far worse.

The band doesn’t waste a minute of the disc’s runtime to show what they’ve got in store either. From the opening jam of the title track, My Morning Jacket throws its listeners hip-deep into feel-good, polished and spotless Velveeta that simultaneously recalls the softest bits of pot pop princes Gomez and the sweetest, most lovable side of Prince without a hint of irony or sideways glancing. It’s actually unsettling how easily the band proves that this is for real and they’re going to play it out straight faced.

The band doesn’t let that shock subside either as the record progresses either. While the traces of My Morning Jacket’s guitar-rock pedigree do occasionally surface in these songs, the licks are uniformly more song-serving (the leads in “Highly Suspicious,” “I’m Amazed” and “Aluminum Park” are still incendiary, but vacuum-sealed and don’t stretch beyond what seems like an allotted time) and the band as a whole keeps things remarkably tidy. Singer Jim James follows suit here and does not often push his vocal register; he’s clearly relishing the novelty of keeping his voice in check  on tunes like “Remnants” and sounding like his generation’s answer to Paul Simon in the process. The going does get funny though when he tries to start coming on to his audience in his best, most lecherous Prince croon (“Touch Me I’m going To Scream” parts one and two among a couple of others) that works about as well as Prince’s pixie-like attempts.

All of this leaves listeners wondering and excited to see what the band will do next. Will My Morning Jacket continue in this well-performed but relentlessly goofy vein, go back the way they came or try something else? The band leaves the possibilities wide open as “Good Intentions” fades out and that’s this album’s single greatest hook. It’s silly and might not go anywhere, but that’s part of the fun.

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