Kentucky fried pysch-country
Over four albums My Morning Jacket have fashioned a sound that embraces widescreen emotionalism with rootsy Americana, pyschedelia and alt-country. ‘Z‘ sees My Morning Jacket broaden their influences while retaining the unifying use of reverb that makes all the songs sound unmistakably them now matter how far they stray from the alt-country template. Recorded in a grain silo or not, veteran producer John Leckie should probably be recognized for maintaining the sultry Kentucky mood while Jim James and co. toy with white boy soul (Wordless Chorus), Clash-style punk-reggae (Off the Record) or stadium power pop (Gideon). MMJ’s Phil Spector-esque use of reverb affords a cerain abstraction – even distance – to even their most tangential enterprises, and allows them to sound like them, even when they don’t. Listening to ‘Gideon’ for instance, has the effect of standing at the back of a very large, empty hall, watching Simple Minds belt out a dress rehearsal. The cavernous effects applied to the recording turn something veering dangerously towards arena rock into something equally epic but nonetheless subtly psychedelic.
Opener Wordless Chorus might well have been an outcut from Junior Boy’s ‘Last Exit‘, all pared-down digital soul, but there is a giveaway deep-South flavour geographically and sonically alien to Jeremy Greenspan’s clinical synth pop. MMJ are not the first band to marry country and soul – their contemporaries Lambchop did it, with a rather different effect, on their 2000 album Nixon – but Z‘s opening gambit suggests they have mastered the art. ‘It Beats 4 U’, the second track and no doubt the album’s anthem, places a beautiful ballad upon militaristic percussion and the type of icy, fantastical synth effects popularised by Goldfrapp – Sunday Bloody Sunday meets Felt Mountain. The song works equally well as an acoustic ballad – versions of which are floating around the net and are well worth checking out.
Other highlights include ‘Into the Woods’, which bears a closer resemblance to the psych-folk of their contemporaries Grandaddy and Midlake, with carnivalesque organs and surreal lyrics contributing to a less emotionally-earnest listening experience. Meanwhile the single ‘Off the Record’, like tracks from Spoon’s later Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, shifts from reggae-tinged punk to more expansive, dubby psychedelia. Never a band to hurry their songs into three minutes – somewhat refreshing at a time of skinny-jeaned post-punk revival – MMJ somehow avoid sounding pompous and stodgy. There is a looseness to the compositions that stop even the more elaborate and lengthy passages labouring under the weight of pretension. There is even something of Thom Yorke about James’ singing on the final track, albiet over a musical backdrop lighter and more spacious than Radiohead’s (bar their most recent album In Rainbows). My first My Morning Jacket album, ‘Z‘ is fantastic discovery for me – if you like this you might like any of the aforementioned artists and albums, alongside Neil Young, Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips.