Written by: Stephen Kondracki, Special to CC2K
With their fifth studio album, Evil Urges, due out on June 10th, My Morning Jacket have turned a corner in a sense, but thankfully not in the way that usually makes a band start to suck. MMJ is most certainly not “tapped out” as so many good rock bands have done by this point in their career. In fact, most people (myself included) probably didn’t know about MMJ until their major label debut, It Still Moves or even the follow up effort Z. If you haven’t heard of them at all yet, what the hell is your problem? Go listen to one or both of these albums, then we can talk. Actually, I’m just kidding – I’m not really one of those pretentious music assholes (that is most likely a lie), my point is that this band is kick-ass and you should go listen to them…even if you’re the type that likes crappy music.
To give you a quick recap of their recent history, their two aforementioned studio albums were similar, but both great in their own ways. One thing that all listeners notice is the reverb-laden production of each album. By adding heavy echo affects to almost every aspect of every song, MMJ developed a sound that was simultaneously haunting and peaceful. Even dating back to their lesser-known albums on the indie label Darla, this has been the band’s de facto signature sound. However, it seemed to be running them the risk of getting pigeon-holed into novelty status among the mainstream crowd.
But then came Okonokos, an expertly-recorded live album that completely blew a lot of people’s minds. Others were more subtly impressed, or had no idea that the album existed. But many would agree that the live energy, without all the reverb (just some) captured on this record and accompanying DVD shed a whole new light on the band. It was a bit of a revelation that the whole creepy echo thing, while pretty cool, may have actually detracted from this band’s ability to totally rock out.
Now comes Evil Urges, a studio album in the shadow of Okonokos. I have to assume that the band/label heard Okonokos and the feedback it received and said something like “Hey, this totally fuckin’ rocks. How come we/they don’t record our/their studio albums like this?” So they did.
The title track opens the album with a techno-ish groove that somehow doesn’t make me cringe (kudos), and quickly catapults into an unmistakable MMJ guitar riff. The first thing that most listeners will notice, however, is that the vocals are delivered entirely in falsetto. This is probably a mistake for several reasons. First of all, it doesn’t sound very good. The melody is solid and deserves to be given the full treatment of Jim James’ somber-sweet timbre. Secondly, it makes for a relatively weak first impression for new listeners and an off-putting change of pace for MMJ loyalists. I have to assume this is entirely intentional, but that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t find it particularly enjoyable. I do, however, totally dig the production quality and its noticeable progression from previous albums.
“Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt. 1” alleviates the fact that the album gets off on the wrong foot, but only to a certain degree. There are heavy doses of a distinct electronic influence that was hinted at on Z, but appears to be taking on a new life. It is tastefully done though, and probably shouldn’t warrant any harsh accusations of over-experimentation. Although the laughable third track, “Highly Suspicious,” will deservingly bring on such criticism. To be honest with you, this is nothing more than a joke track (I hope). I’m barely going to give it the dignity of a full description because it is so curiously terrible. But I will give you this tidbit: think what would happen if Prince and Rob Zombie got together for an all-night studio session fueled dangerously hallucinogenic drugs that helped them conjure up the gem of a lyric that is “peanut butter pudding surprise.” To the song’s credit, though, it does contain one of the album’s coolest guitar riffs.
Now comes the tricky part of reviewing this album. I’ve already prefaced my thoughts with a lengthy exposition, and hinted at a flattering assessment of Evil Urges. So how do I go from practically demonizing it after the first three songs to convincing you that it is quite good and you should even consider paying real money for it? That’s easy: listen to “I’m Amazed.” This is an awe-inspiring rootsy jam that directly follows the abomination of “Highly Suspicious,” creating what seems like a meticulously calculated juxtaposition. Simply put, the song is amazing. It’s elementary structure, classic country-style harmonies, killer guitar work, and off the charts rock-factor make it quite the reward for skeptics who were trying desperately not to hate the “new” sound on display for the album’s first twelve minutes. It’s classic MMJ all the way; and did I mention that it totally fuckin’ rocks?
Other impressive tracks fall in the same category. The similarly country flavored “Two Halves” showcases more excellent harmony and the longest suspended dissonance* I’ve ever heard in popular music. “Aluminum Park” and “Remnants” offer a little more in the way of straight-forward driving rock, and they both exhibit more examples of superior guitar playing from Jim James and fellow guitarist Carl Broemel.
The album has a fair share of mellow moments as well. “Thank You Too,” features an elegant string section accompaniment, but actually would have sounded better with the reverb-heavy production of 2003’s It Still Moves. “Sec Walkin” and “Look At You” are eerie slow jams that offer up some steel guitar and a southern drawl. They are somewhat forgettable songs, but they could be great in the right moment. Plus, they add a decent amount of diversity to the album as a whole. Rounding out the placid portion of the album is the lyrically delightful “Librarian,” which outlines some suggestive fantasies about a “simple little bookworm” and also manages to work in the word “interweb.”
MMJ saved the most epic song, “Smokin’ From Shootin’,” for the end (almost – an unmanageably long reprise of “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream” and a six-second snippet of errant crowd noise are technically the last two tracks, but I predict that most won’t give these more than one or two listens). It expertly combines the best elements of the band’s appeal into a moving and dramatic rock opus that really seals the deal as far as deciding whether or not the album is actually good. Without it, the verdict would probably not be so clear.
My Morning Jacket…I think the name indicates a propensity towards weirdness, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by the oddities on this album. But in a certain sense, this band is as authentic and traditional as it gets. Sure, they’ve been known to record tracks in empty grain silos; and sure, they’ve given us lyrics like “A kitten on fire. A baby in a blender. Both sound as sweet as a night of surrender.” But when you look at the big picture of My Morning Jacket, what you have is the quintessential American rock outfit; the one with a new album that you should buy, borrow, or steal, because it totally fuckin’ rocks.