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My Morning Jacket

+ {Jim James}

Proof that the Americana motif was still going strong and producing worthy acts – post-WHISKEYTOWN and WILCO – you could look no further than MY MORNING JACKET, a group of sonic country rockers that took the best of the GRAM PARSONS and NEIL YOUNG template and added a bit of West Coast psych to the mix.
Formed in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1998, singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Jim James (born James Olliges) had cut his teeth as leader of Month Of Sundays, a schizoid, sprawling 4-piece who released one set, `Did You Bury Yourself Again?’ (1995), and a single `Certain Days’ (1997) – expect to pay a tidy sum for each of these; incidentally, the group also included Aaron Todovich (guitar), Ben Blandford (bass) and Dave Given (drums).
Duly roping in three members of nearby Shelbyville emo-punk combo Winter Death Club: cousin Johnny Quaid (guitar), Tom Blankenship (guitar; now bass as Two-Tone Tommy) and J. Glenn (drums) – bassist Patrick Nevins the odd one out – Jim James named his combo after a dressing gown found in a burnt-out club with the initials MMJ embroidered in its lining. MY MORNING JACKET inked a deal at Darla Records and issued their debut LP entitled THE TENNESSEE FIRE (1999) {*7}. A slow-burning affair cut in an empty grain silo nearby, the richness of songwriting and sparse instrumentation was apparent from the opening salvo `Heartbreakin Man’. Likened to Dean Wareham (GALAXIE 500), Jonathan Donahue (MERCURY REV) or Carlos Forster (FOR STARS), Jim’s voice echoed out of parched deserts, the best bits of which came in the shape of `Nashville To Kentucky’, `Evelyn Is Not Real’, `Butch Cassidy’ and `I Think I’m Going To Hell’.
Adding Danny Cash on keyboards, not much had changed apart from the rocking reverb and horizontal guitar hooks on the band’s sophomore set AT DAWN (2001) {*8}; an album so wide in space it could’ve left the listener agoraphobic with just one sitting. You know a band meant business straight from the opening line (a la `Way That He Sings’) and, throughout the set the listener jumped from weird chord progression to spiky psychedelia, to hush-lite strummed acoustic guitar to thundering keyboards (courtesy of `Lowdown’, `Just Because I Do’, `Phone Went West’ and the title track).
After Glenn made way for Chris Guetig, an EP for Jade Tree Records and a 40-minute mini-set were to follow: first off was the split release with SONGS: OHIA (which featured WILL OLDHAM on vocals during the intense 10-minute epic `Translation’) and next off, a wig-out of rural country blues for Badman Records entitled CHOCOLATE AND ICE (2002) {*6}, featuring the epic `Cobra’ piece, but spoiled by the filler “answering machine message” supplied by Quaid, `It’s Been A Great 3 Or 4 Years’.
Jim James’ boys were minus Guetig (superseded by Patrick Callahan) for 2003’s near-flawless IT STILL MOVES {*9}. This major-label (ATO/RCA) double-set proved to be the outfit’s modern-day take on GRATEFUL DEAD, The BAND and the West Coast rolled into one, using complex orchestrations, coupled with simple melodies, big fuzzy guitar hooks and cowbells – the album virtually left one gasping for air. Standout tracks included the rocking roots vibe of `Mahgeetah’, the swaying folk-rock of `Golden’, the brash tonal lunacy of `Easy Morning Rebel’ and others by way of `One Big Holiday’, `Dancefloors’ and `Just One Thing’. Many cited the (US #127) album and its author Jim James as a pure genius – and quite rightly so. One imagines FLEET FOXES were listening.
On the back of year 2004, which saw an acoustic EP and the unearthing from the vaults of the “Early Recordings” series (Vols. 1 & 2) – marked by covers of `White Rabbit’ (JEFFERSON AIRPLANE), `Sleep Walk’ (Santo & Johnny), `New Morning’ (NICK CAVE), `Santa Claus Is Back In Town’ (Leiber-Stoller), `Rocket Man’ (ELTON JOHN), `Behind That Locked Door’ (GEORGE HARRISON), `Mother’ (PINK FLOYD), `Take My Breath Away’ (BERLIN), `West End Girls’ (PET SHOP BOYS), `Dream A Little Dream Of Me’ (MAMAS & THE PAPAS), `Why Don’t U Love Me’ (HANK WILLIAMS), `Tyrone’ (ERYKAH BADU), `Wear Your Love Like Heaven’ (DONOVAN)’ – a few personnel changes were in place as Bo Koster (keyboards, vocals) replaced Cash, and Carl Broemel (guitars, pedal steel, sax, vocals) replaced Jim’s long-time cohort Quaid.
In honour of former bandmate Aaron Todovich (who’d recently committed suicide), the classic Z (2005) {*9} album was the bearded Jim James and Co at their very best, and indeed, eclectic. If The BAND had shared a studio with The FLAMING LIPS then the sound of MY MORNING JACKET would’ve prevailed a long time back. Structurally concise and dripping with kooky keys and unhinged percussion, the mesh of country-rock, funky-folk, prog-pop and barroom blues were evenly spread over semi-classics `Wordless Chorus’, `It Beats 4 U’, `Gideon’ (U2 meets The WHO), the glam-ish `What A Wonderful Man’ and the cod-reggae of `Off The Record’. Several of these tracks and a whole lot of previous “best ofs” were performed over two nights (November 11-12, 2005) at The Fillmore in San Francisco and released as the double-CD (or DVD), OKONOKOS (2006) {*7}.
2008’s EVIL URGES {*8} garnered further plaudits and the quintet’s Top 10 breakthrough album. Neither neo-psychedelia, alt-country, southern rock or any other compartment reviewers nicely fitted them into, MMJ were an amalgamation of anything-goes rock’n’roll, unwilling to be lumped in with contemporaries and rivals surrounding them. One minute James would get highly-strung and PRINCE-like on `Highly Suspicious’ (weird for one who’d never looked the part of star), the next minute or three diverting into a trippy stoner in book-end parts a la `Touch Me I’m Going To Scream’ (totalling 12 minutes!), Jim James was willing to shapeshift and genre-bend at the wink of an eye. His subsequent work in 2009 as part of indie supergroup MONSTERS OF FOLK (alongside Conor Oberst, M. Ward and Mike Mogis) rewarded him also with a Top 20 set.
Six full studio albums in, the Top 5 CIRCUITAL (2011) {*7} was an extension of MMJ’s previous set, just a little mature and world-weary. No matter how long the quintet convalesced or hid themselves away until near perfection demanded a release, the cream of the crop rose to the top, this time through `Victory Dance’, `You Wanna Freak Out’, `Holdin’ On To Black Metal’ and `Outta My System’. Creatively, the band looked to have found their zenith point, and this was never more obvious when JIM JAMES finally explored his solo side.
Having already divulged his inner idolatry via a “Yim Yames” 2001-recorded `Tribute To’ (GEORGE HARRISON) EP in 2009, and another collaborative work, `New Multitides’, in homage to new-found lyrics by folk legend WOODY GUTHRIE (alongside JAY FARRAR, CENTRO-MATIC’s Will Johnson and VARNALINE’s Anders Parker) in 2012, JIM JAMES had paved the way in order to gauge enough support and identity for a solo sojourn.
This was underlined when REGIONS OF LIGHT AND SOUND OF GOD (2013) {*6} strode into the Top 40 for a week. Stripping bare any complex or cosmic psychedelia, JJ found a path to the creator by redefining and observing faiths and religions of the world through reading a copy of Lynd Ward’s God’s Man, given to him by artist friend Gary Burden. Without breaking a sweat, or his tender larynx, the messages here were “all things must pass” (yes, a former GEORGE HARRISON motif), although Jim did sound very JOHN LENNON-esque. Spiritual and metaphorical, his examinations were of the dreamy space-hymn type, best served up on `A New Life’, `Of The Mother Again’, `All Is Forgiven’ and `Gods Love To Deliver’.
Back from a spell with DYLAN disciples The NEW BASEMENT TAPES, Jim James and Co splashed out on their 7th set, THE WATERFALL (2015) {*7}. Produced this time around by Tucker Martine, gone were any signs of elasticated eclecticism, in its place a meandering array of soft-rock and Laurel Canyon styling in the 70s singer-songwriter mould. Falling one place short of the Top 10 (but almost hitting the Top 40 in Britain), the listener encountered some spiritual leftovers from JJ’s previous solo outing in `Believe (Nobody Knows)’, `Spring (Among The Living)’ and `Like A River’ – or so it seemed – although the GERRY RAFFERTY-meets-CURTIS MAYFIELD-esque `Compound Fracture’ (and `Thin Line’), pinned another feather to the man’s boa.
© MC Strong 2003/GA&ID-AS // rev-up MCS May2015

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