01 June, 2011

My Morning Jacket - Circuital

If I could meet myself ten years ago, I’d give myself the advice that comes from disappointment, regret, and ultimately try to prepare myself for a world that didn’t prepare anyone for the future. I could imagine that there would be many surprises in store for past life Moodicarus, including the realization that all those CD’s I invested in would be worthless at this time (“But I bought the special translucent edition of SR-71! What do you mean the company that made those crappy Macintosh computers we use in school are the cutting edge?”). Finally, there would be the shock that the most interesting band in rock and roll in 2011 was a group of long-haired country-rock hippies that emerged from the streets of Louisville, Kentucky. I still can’t process this fact, and I’m writing the review for their latest album. 

My Morning Jacket seems very representative of the entire music industry right now in that there is no defined sound for the band. With their fourth studio album Z, Jim James and company began to expand their sonic palate of spacey southern rock to include elements of dance hall music and airy keyboards, which illustrates a whole separate atmosphere. For most bands with an established sound it is impossible to move beyond their wheelhouse (I’m looking at you, Foo Fighters).  But MMJ incorporated new sounds into their repertoire with such ease that it angers me that other bands don’t do nearly as much. Even though I didn’t like 2008’s Evil Urges as much since it wasn’t as cohesive, the heights of absurdity and experimenting they hit on that record was amazing.

I’m not going to do a traditional track-by-track analysis here because I don’t think the album warrants it. It’s a pretty solid album, but for the most interesting band in the world, the left turns are not as pronounced here as they were on Evil Urges. Granted, “The Day is Coming” uses video game keyboards to match its perfect drum reverb, while “Outta My System” references The Who Sell Out.  Seriously, it would sound perfect on that chesnut. James sounds like Roger Daltrey, the song is about getting drugs out of his system, and the lead melody is a combination Sixties-pop/Seventies rock killer.  “First Light” is another Who-riff, with bassist Tom Blankenship hitting all the Entwhistle highlights. The oddest moment for me was when “You Wanna Freak Out” used the chord progression from the justly-forgotten dude-rock ballad “Caught in the Sun” by Course of Nature. Not that I'm complaining since My Morning Jacket saves the song without sacrificing their sound. I love this version of the band, where instrumentation jumps in and out while the song makes the listener’s ears twitch, and I imagine that others enjoy this type of output from the band.

While “Slow Slow Tune” and “Movin’ Away” sound like lower-velocity ballads from the band, they are still imbued with the soul that comes from a restless spirit like James even when they’re dealing with themes of transcendence and acceptance. Most of all, the album just sounds fun, and readers of this site know that it’s the ultimate litmus test for pop music for me. Last week, I criticized Lady Gaga for basically not living up to the unbelievable amount of hype that she placed on herself, as well as the marketing scheme that made it impossible to have an objective review. One thing I didn’t mention, or should have expanded, was that her album wasn’t as fun as it could have been. Having listened more over the past week, I’ve enjoyed some key tracks, but an entire album of pop fun seems out of her reach when she’s trying to change the world. I think that’s a shame since she began as a pop act with a monster ode to losing her mind on the dance floor. Putting the weight of the world (well, of all the Little Monsters) on her back doesn’t necessarily equate to dance-pop fun, and while Gaga does it well she still misses the point of why we enjoyed her so much: The bloody fun of it all. Maybe radio has a problem with that, as Melinda Newman has reported.

MMJ have the opposite problem of approaching the stodgy world of rock and roll with a sense of fun that is palpably missing on modern rock radio (though I don’t think FM radio is a particularly viable source of gauging artist influence and popularity anymore, not even in the case of Lady Gaga). Yeah, “Victory Dance” and “Circuital” are open-ended, expansive, and gorgeously produced, but they also have a sense of movement that is lacking in the strippers and grime sleaze of most of today’s modern rock radio (side note: When did I become my grandfather?). “Victory Dance” has a ridiculous harmony opening and riff in that it is simultaneously silly and threatening, the way that bands from the Seventies could be (did somebody say Styx, “Renegade”?). Plus, “Circuital” is a sequel of sorts to “Gideon,” one of the stellar moments on Z, so it deserves extra consideration on this album, and I can imagine how great it would sound in a live setting.

If you want an example of this level of pop fun in Circuital, check out the track “Holdin On To Black Metal.” At a glance, the song is just pure fun, all porn wah-wah pedal guitars melded with horns and the ridiculous falsetto of James to perfect taste. This song illustrates how Circuital is a very keyboard-driven album, even though the guitars hold their own. Wait, is that a kid’s choir singing background in the chorus? I love this band! Talking about Lucifer’s peach (um, ew) isn’t the wackiest thing about this song, but I think it holds together better than last album’s "Highly Suspicious." Keep in mind I loved the latter, but this is just a better song since I’ll take a Motown rave-up over Prince any day of the week. 

Regardless, MMJ still shows signs of light at the end of each tunnel. It’s getting harder and harder for any musical artist to release an album without a specific marketing niche and hook. Yet Jim James and his crack band have never fit within that marketing game because they’ve taken the traditional route of touring and honing their sound to a razor edge. They also utilize James’ soaring vocals to great effect, covering Berlin and Erykah Badu in early demos. This is a refusal to fit within any niche except whatever they find, and this is a hallmark of the best bands. Some artists were born this way, and I firmly believe My Morning Jacket prove that they’ve got nothing to prove on this album. Have fun, boys, I know I am when I listen to this, and I bet that teenaged Moodicarus would have loved it too when he put down the SR-71 album.


Jake said...

ok, let me first say my morning jacket has always been a 'meh' band for me. if they are playing i'm fine, but if someone wants to switch to something else, i give no protests.

i dug this album because it sounded like they recorded the entire thing in a big empty church with great acoustics. which, by the way, is pretty much what they did. the sonic value is fantastic.

the album kind of blends in for me. each track is a little like the one before it. i dig the slow pacing and the overall sound, but it kind of felt like one long song with a few bridges.

unfortunately i don't have much else to say. it is just another 'meh' album from a 'meh' band.

Moodicarus said...

Wow Jake, I still can't believe I'm reading this three weeks later. Yes, Circuital isn't their best album by far, but it's still an interesting step forward and hardly blends (though the end is softer than expected). I find that the band's creative streak is something to be championed, and they consistently find new ways to entertain me when listening. Regardless of sonic value, the songwriting has always been there to turn these tunes to gold, and I really appreciate that. I respectfully disagree with this comment because I think you should hear the live album Okonokos sometime to really get how different they are from other touring groups. Glad that you did seem to get some enjoyment out of it.