Few bands court anonymity more assiduously than (and with as little luck as) My Morning Jacket. Following in the wake of such fellow Kentuckians as Will Oldham, Tara Key and Slint, Louisville writer/guitarist/singer Jim James allows few, if any, commercial compromises in his band’s music, a rich hybrid of reverby stadium rock rhythms, Harvest-era Neil Young and the inner demons of a true original on the overpopulated and bogus stage of American auteurs. What started as a band chasing down ’70s ghosts has turned into a fiery personal vision of haunted beauty and guitar grandeur.
My Morning Jacket is the product of Young’s brooding, melancholic whisperings, the Long Ryders’ sense of song structure, Flaming Lips’ ethereal vocalese, Who Sell Out‘s diffident echo and broken fragments of pop songs that suddenly reveal themselves as bridges to declamatory dirges (think Meat Puppets). This is not to displace James and his brethren from the South: their iconography includes familiar Mason-Dixon border state reveries, replete with cracked and dreamy ambiguities about bears, rebel love, blackout drinking and war — the not-at-all-Civil one and those inside, which James calls the “dead end nightmares.”
The group (which also includes guitarist Johnny Quaid, bassist Two Tone Tommy, drummer J. Glenn and keyboardist/art director Danny Cash) made its debut with The Tennessee Fire, an album of surly intimacy. Their consistent vision merges the melodic fragments and the intense private guitar work; the songs bear the imprint of both youthful fervor and James’ irresolution of his love for Young’s quavering discursive acoustics. The semantics get clumsy now and then, but on the most original song, “I Will Be There When You Die,” My Morning Jacket takes its romantic yearnings to a logical, longing conclusion. Stripped bare from his forefathers and his countryside, James offers a blend of the light and heavy. Songs this unplugged and this mature aren’t found on many debuts.
At Dawn offers more subtly placed sequences of melody and lyrical inwardness; the album has grooves as well as increased experimentation, expanding in a sense on the debut’s electronica bonus track. As perversely thrilling are the dangling bits of love for early ’70s alt countrified rock (Burritos, On the Beach), the album’s centerpiece is the resounding “Honest Man,” a scorcher that allows freedom of guitar frenzy, interactive dynamics between soft and loud and a more normalized singing voice. A killer album.
And they keep getting better. On It Still Moves, the band (now including drummer Patrick Hallahan in place of Glenn) delivers wrecking balls of alertness for punctuation; the singing is more disembodied; the production is dense and New Orleans-inflected, swirling bits and pieces of Americana. The opening “Mahgeetah” and “Dancefloors” have the immediacy and raw improvisatory spirit of live performance; other songs swarm smartly through their five-minute-plus lengths. Mostly acoustic, with flecks of jaunty snares and loping bass work, his singing is the best so far — confessional, inspired and bracingly touching.
James traded in most of his band (getting bassist Bo Koster and ex-Silvercrush guitarist Carl Broemel in to join Hallahan) and his role as producer (in favor of John Leckie) for the magnificent major-label arrival, “Z”. The sound is better — more disembodied and haunting — but less slack, less outward. Rhythms and tempos change constantly, the bass sound is bigger and the enigmatic tension between commercial and experimental is at times pleasantly unbearable. Goodbye blue grass and open skies, hello Manchester. The music is cool on the surface, with tricky deceptions bubbling below. This music has the serene lilt of pop and the hope of sentimentality but also the gravity of unconventional responsibility. Rather than roaring, this music sears.
My Morning Jacket Does Xmas Fiasco Style is funny, touching and slithery, with a great cover and a kickin’ rendition of Elvis’s “Santa Claus Is Back in Town.” More indicative of wintry discontent than the actual dumb holiday, this EP portrays an American band as timely and timeless.