Tuesday, June 24, 2008

They've Got a Master Plan, Babe

On the heels of a prolific if uneven spring of new music (NMAll-Stars, MGMT, Black Crowes, Black Keys, Counting Crows, REM, to name a few) comes My Morning Jacket's Evil Urges, the band's fifth full album and arguably the most hotly-anticipated rock record of the year. If just one of the season's "veteran releases" had fully delivered, or one of the "buzz bands" had shown more substance than style, or the shrinking list of Pantheon Bands You Can Still Count On had synchronized a release with the Jacket, there might not have been such singular focus (and disproportionate expectations) heaped on Evil Urges. This had to be the record that would save rock in 2008. This had to be the record where MMJ made the leap from "awesome band" to "Pantheon band." This had to be the record that brought them mainstream success, constant radio play, a hit music video, multiple Grammy's, and the mantle of Biggest Band on Earth. One overzealous blogger even declared Evil Urges "the record to save 2008 for music and mankind."

So...what's with the hype? Who is this Jacket, and why should I care, and to what end? Or, to put it another way...why them?

Like most bands, My Morning Jacket's early success had as much to do with public misperception as actual merit. After two rootsy, reverb-drenched independent releases (The Tennessee Fire and At Dawn) earned them a small yet devoted fanbase of 1) misguided stoners and 2) people-who-have-spent-any-time-near-a-barn, they made an artistic decision to expand their sound and, consequently, their live show. What was once an acoustic-driven vehicle for Jim James' heavenly voice transformed into a full-band nightly assault of soaring rock and expansive arrangements. In the process of becoming one of rock's best live bands, they were inaccurately given the moniker "jam-band," and heaped into the pile with the rest of the Dave Matthews wannabes (eventually signed to DMB's major subsidiary, ATO). Simultaneously praised for their musicianship and James' gorgeous, unique voice, and dismissed for their "jam-rock" tendencies and "Skynyrd-derivative" riffery, they took a place in the third tier of national bands.

Then came It Still Moves, their major label debut and unapologetic love-letter to roots rock. In the retro bluster of post-9/11 rock, the dominant aesthetic was that of New York uber-cool. From the ironic riffery of the Strokes to the dance-anthem pop-rock of the Killers, Americans wanted rock to sound profoundly urban, moneyed, stylized, and cool. And, in the midst of that movement came It Still Moves, a 50-minute epic literally recorded in a barn. The record was so huge, so beautifully produced and composed, the performances so flawless, and the songs themselves so potent, that critics found themselves uniformly praising the record, regardless of its "jam-band" tendencies and"Skynyrd-riffery." The record's critical success, combined with their growing reputation as one of America's best live bands, placed MMJ in the group of "bands that officially matter."

2005's Z took their popularity to a new level. The record itself was a sonic departure, their last goodbye to barnyard Americana and their first forays into mainstream pop ("Off the Record"), groove-peddling R&B ("Wordless Chorus"), and experimental weirdness ("Into the Woods"). It also showcased the band's new additions (lead guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster), expanding their range of sound and giving them a new dimension live (Broemel is an exceptional guitarist, lap-steel player, and saxophonist). Though none of the record's proposed "singles" transformed MMJ into a Billboard sensation, the album garnered gushing reviews, and an expanded audience. The songs themselves were arguably better than those on It Still Moves, more focused and tight, but every bit as potent. The album closer, "Dondante," I thought was one of the single best songs of that year.

Success begetting success and all, the new heights prompted a tour with Pearl Jam, more album sales, the hugely successful live record Okonokos and an growing perception that MMJ was now the Greatest Live Band in the World. They were increasingly mentioned in the same breath as Elites such as Radiohead, Pearl Jam, and U2. The only thing missing were hit singles to sell them to the masses, to transform their records from gold to platinum, to take them from "widely recognized" to "universally popular." Evil Urges, maybe, would be the final step in the process, a coronation ceremony for rock's "most deserving band."

And what I'm here to tell you is this: Evil Urges is a very, very good record. It is a profoundly focused, consistent, enjoyable, and exciting record, and indicative of an exceptional band fully in command of their talents. It is remarkable not only for its wide-ranging influences (from the Prince-infused "Highly Suspicious," to the Who-derived rocker "Aluminum Park" to the near M. Ward cover "Sec Walkin") but for their seamless integration. This group of songs, so disparate in style and heritage, would sound unfocused, incontinent, and schizophrenic in the hands of a lesser band. That Evil Urges sounds not only like a cohesive record, but a cogent and interesting mix of songs is a testament to their artistic vision, their individual performances, and the savvy of the production.

"Evil Urges" combines a rock-solid R&B groove with an infectious power-rock bridge, while the ominous rhythm guitar part (4:34) is a classic MMJ moment, enacting the sound of an "evil urge." "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream," parts 1 and 2, won't win any new fans, but won't drive away existing ones. Anyone genuinely surprised by the bombastic R&B weirdness of "Highly Suspicious" simply wasn't paying attention during Z. While "I'm Amazed" has garnered plenty of acclaim as the record's first single (and it certainly soars), "Thank You Too" feels to me like a more successful throwback song, with a stronger hook and a more winning sentiment. "Sec Walkin" is imminently likable, and noteworthy for its sonic integration in the record, despite its more "rootsy," um, roots. Track 7, "Better of Two Halves" will end up underrated because of its mid-tempo casualness, but it's one of the record's most repeat-worthy songs. "Librarian" has prompted plenty of press already (probably because it's the first straight-forward love song narrative James has written), but it currently feels like the album's biggest misstep, neither saying nor doing anything interesting or pretty for an overlong 4:18. The next song, "Look At You," is a tremendous rebound, and the type of slow-rocking love song we've come to expect from the Jacket. Of all the songs on the record, this one sounds the most like an It Still Moves b-side, and all the better for it. "Aluminum Park" is enough to quench the riff-rock thirst of any Jacket die-hard, but "Remnants" aptly follows it up just to be sure. Of the two, "Aluminum Park" is considerably stronger, and feels like this record's "Anytime" in terms of infectious rock and live-performance energy.

And then there's "Smokin from Shootin," which has to be the record's best song. From the OK Computer arrangement to the surprisingly great lyrics, to the outstanding performances, this is the new Jacket at their best: writing inspired parts, smartly infusing their greatest influences, and using their superior musicianship to serve a song. In 5:06, it never wastes a second (something we couldn't have said had the song been on At Dawn, It Still Moves or Z).

All told, Evil Urges has already been (and will continue to be) lauded as the record we hoped for, a promise delivered, the sound of a band finally making The Leap into greatness. And it's certainly worthy of praise. My criticism of Evil Urges could end up being an entirely subjective one, which is that (to me) it has ten really good songs and absolutely none of MMJ's greatest songs. While "Aluminum Park" feels like this record's "Anytime," it doesn't soar to the latter's heights, or reach the self-referential transcendence of "but did I find another way to communicate." While "I'm Amazed" is an exceedingly likable song, its hook just isn't as sturdy or its melody as infectious as Z's first single, "Off the Record." While the record definitely goes in expansive, instrumental directions (and almost always successfully), no one composition has the power of "One Big Holiday's" guitar leads, or the beauty of "I Will Sing You Songs," or the joy of "Mahgeetah." And certainly none of the slower ballads are as immediately gorgeous as "Golden" or "Gideon."

Then there's the production of the record. While it should be praised for blending seemingly disparate influences into a homogeneous whole, it still feels occasionally flat. For example, the intro to "Evil Urges" builds into verse one, only when it finally lands on the downbeat and James begins singing, it feels less like a resounding opener and more like a false start. At moments like that, I can't help but feel like they sacrificed some of the band's raw power in order to smooth out the record's overall sound and make way for sonic consistency in later tracks.

These two issues--consistently very good songs (if a paucity of newfound "classics"), and a vexing production style--remind me of another excellent record by another Pantheon band. Pearl Jam's Binaural. While some people dismissed Binaural as B-grade Pearl Jam, I always found it remarkable for its consistency song-to-song. While no one track would ever become my favorite Pearl Jam song, the entire record is exceedingly listenable and without real weakness. It might not ever be Pearl Jam at their absolute best, but it's almost always Pearl Jam at their "very good." The album was admittedly held back by the "binaural" recording technique they experimented with, which placed Eddie's vocals further back in the mix. I can't help but see many similarities between Binaural and Evil Urges, both as remarkably solid records that might never be classics. Is it better to be consistently very good, or occasionally jaw-droppingly great?

Of course, the answer probably doesn't matter. What was one band's "valley" has indeed become another band's "peak," as reviews for Evil Urges are calling it My Morning Jacket's greatest album to date. If the mainstream media is always the last to know, then its reception of Evil Urges might very well be a delayed reaction to the scope of influence and overall brilliance of It Still Moves and Z. The truth is that, while this new record is prompting the coronation ceremony, My Morning Jacket should have been crowned after Z, and certainly should've been considered "Prince in Waiting" after It Still Moves. The remarkable thing isn't that they've made another stellar record...it's that, for some reason, this stellar record is the one that broke.

Timing is everything, I suppose. With My Morning Jacket, it's much better late than never.

Been working on it from the start,

P.S. Enough about me...what do YOU think of the new MMJ???

1 comment:

ross k. said...

You are a gentleman, Sir, but "Highly Suspicious" over "Librarian"? I can't get behind that. "Librarian" has some solid lyrics and is close in quiet profundity to early Simon & G-funkel. That doesn't blow your skirt up?

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