Despite effusive praise from the critical establishment, Kentucky natives My Morning Jacket's debut achieved only a modicum of commercial success on these shores. Such a tepid performance on the charts could constitute a death knell for many groups, and thus one might assume that the lackluster showing of The Tennessee Fire would prematurely end the careers of one of the most promising new bands on the alternative country scene, but fortunately for singer/songwriter/guitarist extraordinaire Jim James and his collaborators the album managed to attain a healthy measure of success abroad (especially, for wholly incomprehensible reasons, in the Netherlands), thus ensuring that as long as My Morning Jacket's output remained lucrative on an international level the ensemble would survive their domestic woes.
While still an egregious lapse of taste, My Morning's Jacket's initial dearth of success is understandable; the band's early calling card, reverb heavy arrangements, is already firmly in place, but in most other respects there's little to differentiate the group from myriad other alternative country cadres, thus, for the time being, consigning the Kentucky natives to obscurity.
This lack of an independent identity may sound like an insurmountable flaw, but My Morning Jacket compensate for this defect through impeccable songwriting and engaging atmospherics; while the group may not tread new ground, they do what they do very, very well.
Not to minimize the accomplishments of the other band members, but much of The Tennessee Fire's quality can be attributed to frontman Jim James, whose knack for penning strong melodies, minimalist guitarwork and strong (if somewhat reminiscent of Flaming Lips singer Wayne Coyne, as has often been remarked) vocals elevate the album to the heights of the alternative country genre.
The album does suffer from other liabilities, however; the music can be somewhat same-sounding, with a paucity of departures from the band's basic style. The group sagaciously included two rockers, It's About Twilight Now and The Dark, but for the most part they fail to cultivate a healthy level of diversity, seldom interspersing stylistic variations with the group's signature alternative country offerings.
Virtually all of these flaws would be addressed on subsequent outings, but for now My Morning Jacket are curtailed by a lack of a unique musical voice and criminal negligence when it comes to the issue of diversity. It's hard to lament these defects too much, however, given the high caliber of the material on the album, which enables The Tennessee Fire to rise above its shortcomings.
The album boasts nearly uniformly strong melodies, with stunning vocals hooks like the 'bad idea' refrain of The Bear and gorgeous instrumental passages like the soaring intro to Heartbreakin Man. James demonstrates tremendous songwriting acumen right from the start of his career, and while his lyrics may be underwhelming, relying far too much on stereotypical country clichés, his acute grasp of the 'country hook' is evident throughout the course of the album.
Thus while stylistically unremarkable The Tennessee Fire is still quite an accomplished album, instantly establishing My Morning Jacket as a top tier alternative country outfit. The album may not break new ground, but thanks to its array of stellar melodies and adroit musicianship it simply doesn't need to.
While At Dawn doesn't add anything appreciably new or different to the My Morning Jacket formula, it's still far from a sophomore slump; just as the sheer quality of The Tennessee Fire compensated for any similarities between the group's style and that of other prominent alternative country acts, the band's second outing is sufficiently strong that any concerns over the pronounced resemblance between the album and its predecessor are swiftly dispelled.
Unsurprisingly the reverb-heavy sound that typifies the band's early arrangements has been translated to At Dawn intact, having become something of a signature sonic nuance for the group. Furthermore, this aural flourish has been reinforced by James' eccentric decision to record his vocals in a grain silo, an unorthodox approach to music-making that signifies his commitment toward preserving one of the key elements that differentiates My Morning Jacket from myriad similar alternative country outfits. While this method of recording doesn't ultimately have much impact on the album's sound, as The Tennessee Fire features a comparable level of reverb, it does make for an interesting anecdote for the band's fans to relate to one another, which may ultimately be precisely the effect James was hoping for, attempting to establish a mythology for a band that's still at a tender age in its developmental cycle.
Though it's been established that At Dawn doesn't offer much in the way of improvements over the band's stellar debut, it's important to note that the album doesn't feature any flaws or drawbacks that weren't featured on The Tennessee Fire; on the contrary, every element that worked on My Morning Jacket's first endeavor has been completely retained and employed to the fullest, and there was little that marred the original opus in the first place. While At Dawn isn't necessarily superior to The Tennessee Fire, it's certainly on a similar level, boasting the same consistently high-quality songwriting that instantly elevated the group to the upper echelons of the alternative country genre.
While My Morning Jacket's songs tend to remain tight and focused, the group isn't averse to at least a modicum of jamming, as indicated on the track Honest Man. James particularly excels on that alt-country anthem, providing a fluid and exhilarating guitar solo that proves that the band's customary neglect of prolonged jamming is a stylistic decision as opposed to a means to mask any deficiencies in the technical department.
As was the case with its predecessor, the consistency of At Dawn makes it difficult to isolate specific tracks as favorites, but certain numbers like the haunting Strangulation! manage to stand out, as do other key moments like the hook in the refrain of the minimalistic It Smashes Down. On the whole, however, the album is devoid of anything that could be called filler (unless you count the hidden track, the second consecutive time that the group's needlessly grafted a nondescript instrumental to the end of their product for no apparent reason), an especially impressive feat given the length of the CD.
Thus At Dawn is another impeccable alternative country album; while the group have yet to establish a unique identity for themselves, this regrettable fact doesn't prevent them from producing some of the best material to be found in the genre. While the band would move on to explore different territory in the future, this was certainly not due to any shortcomings in their implementation of their initial style of choice, as there have been few bands in the genre that have matched the songwriting brilliance of Jim James and company.
Prior to the recording of their third outing, My Morning Jacket finally signed with a (relatively) major record label. While there are occasional manifestations of the group's graduation from the indies and transition to (comparative) stardom, such as some ill advised expansions of their arrangements that are transparently the byproducts of their newly signed status, there are only a modicum of such instances, as the band emerge untainted and largely uninfluenced by their recent good fortune.
The album's most significant changes, however, can seldom be attributed the group's 'sellout.' Most evident of these changes is a much higher concentration of rockers. While I've remarked that My Morning Jacket lacked much in the way of an independent identity at this stage of their development, this newfound heavier focus doesn't come across as an artistic realization or an epiphanic bout of self-actualization. It never feels as if the group has finally struck upon their true essence or niche in the music industry; rather, it feels as if James and company felt that a greater volume of rockers would be conducive to greater success, and accordingly shifted their stylistic focus for the time being.
It comes as no surprise that the band can produce high quality rockers; both The Tennessee Fire and At Dawn featured the occasional heavier number, and thus the group can hardly be said to be trying something new or different, meaning that this adjustment is purely quantitative as opposed to qualitative.
Sadly the band seem to have lost something thanks to this emphasis on rocking, as if part of their charm atrophied in the translation to heavier territory. Furthermore, the rock songs tend to be rather generic, much the same way that My Morning Jacket's signature brand of alternative country has never fully differentiated itself from the oeuvre of the band's contemporaries. Fortunately, however, just as the band's alt-country compensated for its dearth of originality through its unimpeachable quality, the group's rocking material is fully redeemed by its exceptional caliber.
Tracks like the moody Masterplan and the menacing Run Thru are exhilarating rockers in the same vein as past triumphs like It's Almost Twilight Now, and now that they occupy a greater proportion of the album the very character of It Still Moves has dramatically changed, despite the fact that in reality nothing new or truly different has been added. Ergo even though it's the same two styles that were featured on the band's past work that are now on It Still Moves, the relative balance of the content proves instrumental in determining the ultimate nature of the CD.
Unfortunately the greater focus on rockers has led to a measure of neglect when it comes to the remainder of the album. While the songwriting of the traditional alternative country fare is far from bad, it still suffers when compared to the impeccable composing that typified Jim James' work on prior albums. There are no offensive tracks to be found, but there are blunders like the clumsy, awkward refrain of Dance Floors and the forced feel of the band's attempts at a sweeping anthem on I Will Sing You Songs.
Thus It Still Moves is somewhat lacking when compared to the band's older material. While the group manage to rock convincingly, a difficult feat for most alternative country groups, they fail to demonstrate a need for this shift in styles. The rockers are indeed strong, but they don't present much of a case for My Morning Jacket continuing in a heavier direction.
In the end the songwriting on It Still Moves simply doesn't match the brilliance of the album's predecessors. It's still a highly entertaining affair, primarily due to the quality of the rockers, but the band's affinity for this new style comes across as something of a self-betrayal; My Morning Jacket may already have already lacked a unique creative identity, but It Still Moves often feels like an attempt to drift even further from any potential artistic individuality, embracing a direction that they know couldn't be further from their true calling.
In the interim between It Still Moves and Z, My Morning Jacket sustained a couple of losses to its roster, resulting in a pair of vacancies that were promptly filled, yet while this personnel shift coincides with a massive stylistic overhaul it's likely that the band's new direction can be attributed to a change in Jim James' musical ethos as opposed to a product of the lineup adjustment.
The reason for this is simply that Jim James essentially is My Morning Jacket, with his collaborators invariably coming off less as creative equals and more as a mere backing band. This sounds harsh, and it's not as if the other members are wholly inconsequential, but the fact of the matter is that James is the lead vocalist, the lead guitarist and, most importantly, the lead songwriter. Taken in this context it certainly seems more plausible that James initiated the changes the band underwent in the wake of their first three opuses rather than the group arriving at some sort of democratic conclusion about the direction that My Morning Jacket should progress in.
At any rate, Z is a huge departure from all that preceded it while still sounding like a natural extension of the band's first three outings. The group have escaped from the narrow confines of the alternative country scene, instead embracing the artistic freedom afforded by the indie rock movement.
It's debatable whether or not the group have finally found their own artistic 'voice,' but this is actually a positive in a sense; the fact that My Morning Jacket lack a clear de facto formula to fall back on forces them to explore a broader spectrum of styles, many of which might otherwise have gone neglected. This also addresses the longtime problem of variety, as the band's search for an identity makes for a far more diverse listen.
Indeed Z depicts the band hurtling from one form to another, be it on the synth-propelled opener Wordless Chorus, the festively macabre Into The Woods, the straightforward driving guitar-rock of Anytime or the heart-wrenching catharsis of Dondante. My Morning Jacket acquit themselves admirably at whatever mode they tackle, exhibiting an impressive level of versatility that was only hinted at in their previous offerings.
While James' colleagues may not be the driving creative forces in the band, they still adroitly complement their frontman with their deft arrangements and highly professional musicianship, capable of fluidly shifting from the traditional rock and roll jamming of What A Wonderful Man to the moody, restrained instrumental passages of Off The Record. Most importantly they always strive to realize James' artistic visions, never obstructing his songwriting with extraneous sonic posturing or gratuitous, distracting solos.
While James was a phenomenal songwriter on the alt-country scene, he proves himself just as capable in the more varied indie rock arena. On Z brilliant melodies abound, from the stellar rocker It Beats 4 U to the miniature epic Gideon. None of the genres explored on Z ever daunt, intimidate or perplex James, as he remains in top form for the duration of the album.
Thus Z rectifies the two problems that had plagued the band since their inception. As far as the issue of a unique identity is concerned, while the group haven't necessarily discovered their 'true' selves, if such a thing even exists, they certainly have found a way to sound vastly different from the bulk of their contemporaries through the sheer breadth of their sonic palette, and in the diversity department they've finally managed, after a rocky start, to truly excel. The resulting product is the zenith of My Morning Jacket's oeuvre; while alternative country fans may feel as if they've been spurned, the truth of the matter is that the band have retained all of the gifts that enabled them to climb to the peak of that form in the first place, and now they're merely applying the same talents to new and different areas. My Morning Jacket, having perfected one style, simply required more room to grow and develop; they're the same group they've always been, and will remain so regardless of any radical future pursuits, which should please any fan of the band no matter what genre preferences they may harbor.
Upon hearing a basic description of the album, one would likely feel that Evil Urges sounds much like its immediate predecessor Z; both products are diverse collections of experimental material from a once straightforward group who are now determined to defy any attempts at categorization. After listening to the album, however, this illusion is promptly dispelled, as the correlations between the two CDs are superficial at best.
The album's opener, the title track (one of several numbers where James adopts a profoundly grating falsetto), contains a prog-influenced instrumental passage; this section neither fits the song, nor does it possess any significant merits to justify its presence on the track. Its inclusion simply feels completely random, bereft of any relevance or meaningful value; it's simply there.
In many ways this is tantamount to a microcosm of Evil Urges as a whole. There are a plethora of diverse genre exercises, but they're largely devoid of the guiding intelligence and inspired creativity that animated Z; lacking much in the way of skill or precision, these tracks merely occupy space without accomplishing anything of note, filler of the most overt and transparent variety.
For a large portion of the album Evil Urges simply wallows in its own mediocrity. The title track seems promising at first, as the band seem to have a firm grasp of basic funk, but it's sabotaged by the previously mentioned irksome falsetto and its extraneous multipart structure.
My Morning Jacket's second foray into the realm of funk is far worse, however. The Prince impersonation, Highly Suspicious, not only constitutes the nadir of the album but is in fact the low point of the band's entire catalogue. The already irritating falsetto is exaggerated to the point of absurdity, while the mechanical chants of the title demonstrate an egregious lapse of taste on the part of the group.
Elsewhere I'm Amazed is criminally bland and nondescript, while Thank You Too! recalls adult contemporary at its most wretched. Tracks like Two Halves, Look At You and Smokin From Shootin barely even register, and on Librarian the band learn the harsh lesson that intentionally idiotic lyrics are still idiotic no matter how self-aware they may be.
Even the rockers, which are normally a safe bet for My Morning Jacket, are somewhat lacking, as tracks like Aluminum Park are far too generic to amount to much in the long run.
It's telling that Sec Walkin, the album's solitary excursion into familiar alternative country territories, is one of the better numbers; it's hardly a classic, but a decent formulaic number is somewhat refreshing amidst all of the botched experimentation.
Elsewhere the rocker Remnants is far superior to Aluminum Park, boasting a decent riff and a healthy level of energy, while Parts 1 and 2 of Touch Me I'm Going To Scream are definite highlights, particularly the latter which is the closest the album comes to having a true epic.
While far from a disaster, Evil Urges is simply a grave disappointment from a band that, until now, had been nothing if not consistent. With a paucity of strong melodies and myriad questionable stylistic choices the album is, while seldom painful (barring Highly Suspicious), often a chore to sit through in its entirety. Some of the weaker numbers have a few elements that redeem them (to some extent, that is), but most of the tracks seem to lack any real purpose or inspiration, coming across as cursory exercises as opposed to meaningful rock songs.
If nothing else, though, the diversity does make for a somewhat interesting experience, as it's rare that variety on a rock album can be a wholly negative thing. Thus with a few genuinely solid numbers and some intriguing if misguided experimentation, Evil Urges does have at least something of worth to offer, though its multitude of flaws ensure that the CD as a whole never rises above the level of mediocre.
There's no question that Z was a diverse album. Jim James took the opportunity to push the limits of his songwriting, exploring genres and styles far removed from My Morning Jacket's alternative-country beginnings. Despite this variety, however, Z felt like a coherent artistic statement, with all of its disparate elements coming together to form a cohesive whole.
This could not be said for Evil Urges, Z's immediate follow-up. While the band still tackled a plethora of styles, these genre exercises felt like diversity for diversity's sake. Gone was a unifying vision, replaced with a series of impersonations that took the band further and further from artistic relevancy.
Worse, however, was the fact that on Evil Urges Jim James was in less than top form. His songwriting was erratic throughout, a first for the ever-reliable James. He was also trying far too hard to imitate specific singers, resulting in vocals that sounded forced and awkward.
Circuital offers My Morning Jacket the chance to redeem themselves, but they don't quite fully avail themselves of this opportunity. True, the songwriting is improved, albeit far from James' best. The album, however, still feels like a ragtag collection of experiments, a far cry from the singular vision of Z.
One of Circuital's greatest failings is that it prizes authenticity over creativity. There's no denying the skill with which the band captures the minutia of each genre they tackle, but this doesn't always result in inspired or even entertaining songwriting. James seems more concerned with duplicating styles than making them his own, and thus he neglects melody in favor of 'authentic' arrangements.
I've often remarked that, even after years of experience, My Morning Jacket have yet to fully establish their own identity. This can actually be an asset at times, as it enables the band to experiment in many different areas. The problem is that this means that the caliber of the group's material is often contingent upon the quality of whatever group they happen to be imitating.
I'm far less apt to applaud a group for a skillful impersonation than a creative performance, and thus I grow frustrated when all a band offers is a procession of deft imitations. Fortunately, James is still far too gifted an artist to reject strong songwriting altogether. Circuital, while chiefly concerned with its chameleon-like genre games, does feature a number of solid melodies.
The moody Victory Dance is both catchy and atmospheric. Unsurprisingly, part of this can be attributed to the fact that the song isn't really based on a specific artist, which gives James more room to invent and experiment. The poppy The Day Is Coming is also fun, if unremarkable, while Outta My System is both amusing and catchy, if rather slight. The funky Holdin On To Black Metal feels like a crisis averted, as James manages to adopt a falsetto without eliciting a homicidal reaction from me. This may seem like an instance of 'damning with faint praise,' but after the wretched Prince-imitations on Evil Urges it still bears mentioning.
Unfortunately, listening to Circuital makes it all too clear where James' priorities lie. Whether it's the bland Wonderful (The Way I Feel), the generic pop-rocker First Light or the prosaic country-rocker title track, nearly every song betrays James' focus on form over substance. A flawless imitation is still an imitation; the truth, however, is that I wouldn't even care that a song is an imitation if only James had bothered to pen an original, catchy melody for it.
There are few offensive tracks on Circuital, but there are certainly some tedious ones. Slow Slow Tune advertises its chief defect in its title. The track is an old-fashioned ballad so enervated that I feel the second 'Slow' is, rather than redundant, indeed quite necessary. Movin Away is scarcely faster, leading one to conclude that James intended the listener to emerge from Circuital comatose.
A handful of strong tracks elevate Circuital above its predecessor, but until James regains his flair for melody-making My Morning Jacket albums will continue to suffer. It's a bad sign when the work of a songwriter as gifted as Jim James can be mistaken for a series of uninspired covers. If this is the price to be paid for diversity then I'd rather the band return to their one-note alternative-country origins. Early My Morning Jacket may have suffered from uniformity, but at least the melodies were strong. I'm not sure what will really reinvigorate James's creative muscle, but the current formula certainly isn't working.