Friday, February 10, 2006

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: A RECENT MUSIC OBSESSION

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
February 10, 2006

OK, I’ve got to admit that I’m a Stevie-come-lately to My Morning Jacket.

Z, the latest album by this Louisville, Ky., band, released late last year, made it to critics’ top-10 lists all over this great land of ours, ranking 10th in the recently published 2005 Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll.

But I didn’t start getting into them until a few weeks ago, when out of curiosity I downloaded an old live show from eMusic. (I couldn’t resist. It was recorded Aug. 16, 2002, the 25th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, and it starts out with a mournful version of “Suspicious Minds.”)

I was hooked. I got copies of Z and It Still Moves (another critics’ fave that I basically ignored in 2003 despite the cool cover depicting a stuffed bear). The band started growing on me. As I said here last week, one of my favorite tunes on the recent Bloodshot compilation (For a Decade of Sin) was Jacket’s mysterious country weeper “Behind That Locked Door.”

Next thing I knew I was obsessed, a 52-year-old fanboy, downloading live concerts from the Live Music Archive, where they’ve got 55 shows, including a short one from 1999, very early in their career. Right now I’m loving the Nov. 23, 2005, show from Louisville.

The main voice behind Jacket is Jim James. (Gotta wonder if that’s his real name. Jimmy James was an early stage name for one James Marshall Hendrix. Could someone have actually named a baby James James?) His high-pitched voice gives the band much of its texture.

Texture, in fact, is one of the first words that come to mind when trying to describe My Morning Jacket. Their music is based more on melody than riffage. Often James’ melodies make unexpected turns. Instrumentally, songs often turn into fierce battles between guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboard man Bo Koster (both of whom joined Jacket in 2004).

Some have tried to define them as “alt country” — and in fact that steel guitar and honky piano sure sound pretty on Z’s “Knot Comes Loose.” Others have compared them to latter-day psychedelic bands like the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev. Check out the alien synth jam that rises from the guitar thunder at the end of “It Beats 4 U.” But to get all metaphysical on you, while Mercury Rev’s main element is Air, My Morning Jacket is of the Earth. This band’s sound is thick and heavy, and as unique as it is, there’s something homey and familiar about it.

Other musical ingredients are detectable on Z. Neil Young (Crazy Horse model) definitely is an influence. You can hear echoes of Bono in James’ howl on the choruses of “Gideon” and touches of Brian Wilson’s sweet insanity (though that was more pronounced on It Still Moves). Reggae beats sneak in at various spots. There’s a slightly altered “Hawaii Five-0” riff on “Off the Record,” a twisted nod to doo-wop on “Wordless Chorus,” and a little bit of happy Meatloaf anthem pop in “What a Wonderful Man.” (I won’t even try to describe that bizarre falsetto “YEAH!” at the end of this song.)

The centerpiece of Z is a weird carnival waltz called “Into the Woods.” Bird chatter and insect chirping introduce the calliope-like keyboards that bounce in. James’ voice sounds world-weary as he begins spouting his black-humor lyrics: “A kitten on fire/A baby in the blender/Both sound as sweet as a night of surrender.”

I’ve still got some catching up to do. I haven’t heard Jacket’s first two albums (The Tennessee Fire and At Dawn). Also a little label called Darla has released a couple of rarity albums with lots of James originals plus covers of folks ranging from Hank Williams to Jefferson Airplane to the Pet Shop Boys. There’s even a My Morning Jacket Christmas EP .

This could be a long, happy relationship.

Also recommended

*Amber Headlights by Greg Dulli. This nine-song EP, clocking in at less than 35 minutes, sounds more like the Afghan Whigs than Dulli has in years. While his current band, the Twilight Singers, explores more layered, dreamier sounds, most of these songs offer that trademark angsty, Whigsy guitar — descended as much from ’70s blaxploitation soundtracks as punk/metal.

There’s a good reason this sounds closer to his old band. It originally was recorded back in 2001, but for reasons I’m not sure of only saw the light of day late last year. Some riffs and melodies from Amber Headlights have been reworked into other tunes on Twilight Singer albums.

Longtime Dulli fans surely will find similarities between this effort and Black Love, the Whigs’ 1996 masterpiece. As is often the case, the narrator of these songs is a shadowy cad, almost like a Steely Dan character, trying to lure young naked prey with slick talk and cocaine.

“Your weakness is my sweetness,” he sings with Petra Haden in an almost-mocking falsetto in “Pussywillow,” though he also sings, “sweetness is my weakness.”

“Used to feel love, now I wanna hurt you/real bad/real slow,” he confesses as the Shaft-like guitar starts to boil in “Early Today (and Later That Night).”

“This world is wicked/it’s beautiful,” he sings on “Wicked.”

But in the last song, “Get the Wheel,” Dulli, alone at a piano, sounds as if he’s gone soft on a skirt: “Last night was all right,” he sings in his cool rasp. “I wanna see you again.”

And you know she’ll be back.

3 comments:

  1. Anonymous9:13 AM

    I'm pretty sure Jim James' real name is James Olliges.

    No, I don't know why I remember this trivial stuff either.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous12:07 PM

    Better late than never, I suppose. MMJ was an Oxford American pick several years ago. Now how long will it take you to find The Hold Steady?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Just wait until you see them live. Glad to have you join the believers :-).

    ReplyDelete

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