Consisting of guitarist Johnny Quaid, bassist Two-Tone Tommy, drummer J. Glenn, and singer/guitarist/group leader/primary songwriter Jim James, whose lonesome Neil Young meets Wayne Coyne warble is deeply affecting, My Morning Jacket's first album was an intimate, impressive affair. Although somewhat hindered by its lo-fi production and overly long length (57 minutes, which would seem short compared to subsequent efforts), the songs are often excellent, and the album's ""Kum Ba Ya" by the fireplace" feel reminds me of Harvest Moon era Neil Young, albeit with extra layers of reverb for added atmospherics. In addition to strong songs, the best of which are arguably "Heartbreakin' Man," "The Bear," "Old Sept. Blues" (my personal favorite), "If All Else Fails," "Picture Of You," and "Butch Cassidy," the band has a great laid-back sound. Generally speaking, their intimate yet spacious sound is comprised of acoustic/electric guitars, James' lonesome high-pitched (often harmonized) voice, Glenn's big beat (a la Steven Drozd), at least on some songs (others are drum-less), and of course tons of reverb. Coming to this album after the sprawling It Still Moves, I was surprised at how concise most of these 16 songs are. Many of said songs have a countrified feel (think pedal steel guitar, harmonica, etc.) and a charming simplicity, and only when the band tries to rock out on rare occasions do they get in trouble ("It's About Twilight Now" and "The Dark," mostly). The lively guitar solo on "Evelyn Is Not Real" and the jam ending on "I Think I'm Going To Hell" (which rivals "I Will Be There When You Die" for best song title) more successfully foreshadow the bands more expansive future, and the untitled "bonus track" provides an interestingly moody instrumental fadeout that's quite unlike anything else here. All in all, this is an uncommonly strong first album; perhaps a few songs coast by on moody atmospherics alone where not much happens, and there are definitely a few songs too many, but I'd unreservedly recommend The Tennessee Fire to fans of the band's far more popular major label albums.
At Dawn (Darla '01) Rating: A-
More of the same, but different too. For one thing, this album has a stronger, cleaner production (the guys all sound like they're in the same room this time). However, this isn't always a good thing, as the more normalized sound actually robs the band of some of their distinctiveness; though My Morning Jacket are still plenty atmospheric, this album is a little less hazily memorable to me than The Tennessee Fire. The songwriting is occasionally inconsistent as well, and some of the songs and the album itself are too long (70 minutes). Still, the catchy country folk of "Lowdown," the also-excellent if more difficult to describe "The Way That He Sings," and the utterly lovely (also countrified) "X-Mas Curtain" are stellar songs by any measure, and even the lesser songwriting efforts, some of which are ultra-sparse musically, are still really pretty as a general rule. Sure, the album can be a bit slow going and lethargic at times, but "Just Because I Do" and "Phone Went West" are strong livelier (relatively speaking) songs, and "Honest Man" is a big improvement on "It's About Twilight Now" in the loud, frenzied "My Morning Jacket does Crazy Horse" sweepstakes. Elsewhere, you get more great song titles such as "Death Is The Easy Way" (a very good song too) and even some good advice on "Bermuda Highway" ("don't let your silly dreams fall in between"), and few band's music goes down so easy while simultaneously being so hauntingly beautiful. Again, the "Bonus Track" (yes, it's actually called that), a richly layered acoustic instrumental, is indeed a true bonus that's unlike anything else on the album, and only the occasional lack of fully fleshed out, easily distinguishable melodies and the band's increasing tendency to meander prevents At Dawn from being more than merely a very good second album, which it most assuredly is.
It Still Moves (ATO í03) Rating: A
These Louisville-based long hairs have at various times been compared to Neil Young, The Band, The Allman Brothers Band (think Brothers And Sisters), and The Flaming Lips (circa The Soft Bulletin), and each of those comparisons rings true at times. Yet the ultimate end result as captured on It Still Moves is still all My Morning Jacket, one of the best young bands around today. In addition to Jamesí best batch of songs to date, what this major label debut has that the band's previous two independent releases don't is simply superior sound quality and a bigger budget that enables them to hire the likes of The Memphis Horns to spice up some tracks. However, the band hasn't tinkered with their moody yet relaxed sound too much, though Patrick Hallahan has replaced Glenn on the drum stool and perhaps there are more noticeable instances of strings and piano. As usual, songs whose hooks aren't readily apparent slowly unfold with repeat listens, and some of the slowly unfolding songs (and the album itself) are a little too laconic and long for their own good. Still, it's tough to fault the band too much for being ambitious. After all, a little pretension in the right hands can be a good thing, and this band clearly knows what they're doing, whether delivering dreamy, reverb-drenched melancholia (which is most of the time) or unleashing a hard-hitting "jam band" who have the chops to back it up. In addition to their legendary love of reverb, perhaps the band's best-known characteristic is the vocals of James, which in addition to Young and Coyne brings Jackson Browne's less high-pitched, more plaintive delivery to mind at times. In addition to a crisper sound, there's more loud guitars this time out, though unsurprisingly most of this stellar, admirably consistent collection is quite mellow overall. As for album highlights, I'd include the brightly melodic opener "Magheeta," the danceable yet jammy "Dancefloors," the country-ish, easily loping "Golden," the surging guitar rocker "One Big Holiday" (for my money THE MMJ song, later brilliantly used in the movie The Lookout), the wailing guitar workout "Run Thru," which drips with a sweaty, soulful intensity, and "Steam Engine," with its gorgeously weeping guitars. But more than individual songs it's the albums melodic, summery qualities that I find most appealing. Really, this is the rare album that can appeal to the stoner set who just want to "chill out" and rocker types who'd also like (or if youíre like me, love) the band's uniquely spacey brand of Southern psychedelia.
Z (ATO í05) Rating: A
Despite turning over half the band (Bo Koster is on bass while Carl Broemel plays guitar), My Morning Jacket delivered their best album to date, with help from legendary producer John Leckie, who gives his customary crystalline sheen (though the drum sound is a bit sterile at times) to James' best overall batch of songs. My Morning Jacket's music has often been moody, mysterious, and beautiful, and it still is, but it's never been this immediate, accessible, and pop friendly. The meandering of (the still excellent) It Still Moves is kept to a minimum, too, as Z's 10 songs clock by in a very reasonable 45 minutes, thereby correcting the primary weakness of previous albums. The Yoshimi-like first song is indeed all about its "Wordless Chorus" (the band has a knack for airy "aah" harmonies), and the moody, groove-based "It Beats For You" is extremely creative musically and is emotionally resonant. "Gideon" is a lush, shimmering highlight that surges to an exciting climax, and "What A Wonderful Man" is a catchy yet raucous rocker (whose vocals are admittedly a bit grating at times) that runs on for all of 2:22. The excellent "Off The Record" could actually pass for a normal, quite catchy pop song, at least until an ultra atmospheric extended fadeout that's worthy of Air or Zero 7, and "Into The Woods" is a strong ballad and a fine example of how moody keyboards really step to the fore on this album, while its strange gothic ending is also notable. "Anytime" is an example of how the energy is much higher than what was previously typical of the band, plus it has more of a pop coating than what was previously customary, plus it rocks. And remember the band's feeble attempts to rock out on (the still quite good) Tennessee Fire? Well, those are a distant memory, for the mighty "Lay Low" is a great guitar jam that would make Neil Young & Crazy Horse proud (somewhere I bet Danny Whitten is smiling), and "Dondante" also ends the album with a stellar jam, though its first half features the band at their most unadorned. "Knot Comes Loose," a soft, romantic, country-tinged piano ballad, is another highlight on an album full of highlights, as My Morning Jacket put it all together on Z, which is the best album I've heard from 2005. Warning: This is one of those "copyright protected" cds (don't blame the band; the "anti-piracy" software was installed by the band's distributor without their knowledge), so don't even try using it with your computer. Maybe one day record companies will work with consumers instead of treating them like criminals.
Okonokos (ATO í06) Rating: A
My Morning Jacket sound really good live, a fact that I can attest to since I saw them on this tour, plus itís borne out by the superior sound quality of this stellar live album, which was recorded over two shows at San Franciscoís legendary Fillmore West. My problems with this double live album are very minor. For one thing, the set list is extremely heavy on Z (eight out of its ten songs) and It Still Moves (seven songs), admittedly the band's two best studio albums, but I wouldíve preferred a more career encompassing retrospective. Secondly, the band sounds so good live, and so live on their studio albums, that this album almost plays like a greatest hits studio album. What I mean by that is that these songs donít sound all that different from their studio renditions, and the point of most live albums is to show a different side of the band that wasn't quite captured in the studio. Also, though their playing and Jamesí singing is immaculate, I also wish that the band exuded more charisma onstage and interacted with their fans more, though that's more of a problem in person than here. Starting the album with the same three songs that started Z was also ill-advised, but like I said before, in the grand scheme of things any problems that I have with this album are extremely minor (besides, a great version of "Gideon" into an outstanding "One Big Holiday" may be my favorite 1-2 punch on any MMJ album). For one thing, this album is 21 songs strong, and all of them are good. And the songs on the whole are a bit more stretched out, intense, and rocking than the original studio versions, good things all (plus they're less reverb heavy). The set list smartly concentrates on their more rock oriented, jam-based material, with the second disc in particular unleashing their inner Crazy Horse on some wild guitar excursions. More than anything, My Morning Jacket has a relaxed yet rocking sound that greatly appeals to me, and this album has too many examples of the bandís outstanding musicianship to even mention. Sure, given the expansive arrangements things drag on a bit at times, but given its consistent overall quality I'm still tempted to call Okonokos the quintessential My Morning Jacket album. Itís also fun to play spot the influences, some already mentioned in the previous reviews but also including the likes of the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, and Rush. Long story short, My Morning Jacket are one of the best bands around today, live or in the studio, and Okonokos should greatly appeal to existing fans (because it has so many good and even great songs in one place), and it can also serve as an ideal starting point for those of you who are curious about the band but have thus far abstained. This is an excellent live album by an excellent band in their prime, and I also highly recommend checking out the Okonokos DVD, which is so much fun in part because the stage setting is so elaborate and because the band members really look the part of the earthy, hippie-ish free spirits that they are.
Evil Urges (ATO í08) Rating: B
Unlike the raves that generally accompanied Z, this album seems to be getting mixed reviews, and I can see why, as this schizophrenic album at times scarcely sounds like My Morning Jacket. This is immediately apparent on the title track, which features Prince-ly falsettos from James, as does the utterly ridiculous "Highly Suspicious" (think Beck circa Midnight Vultures). I admit that I was dismayed by these songs at first myself, but they're quite fun once you live with them for awhile, and the album on the whole is a "grower" even if it fails to scale previous heights. As such, I consider Evil Urges to be a minor disappointment, but then again my expectations were extremely high given that My Morning Jacket are among my favorite current bands, and again it is still a good album. I mean, the Yoshimi-ish "Touch Me I'm Going To Scream, Pt. 1" and the melodic, singable "I'm Amazed" are first-rate tracks for sure, and the album is rarely less than listenable even if other highlights don't exactly jump out at me. If anything, the album probably tries to be too many things at once, going through pretty country ("Sec Walkin'," which is probably the best of the rest, and "Look At You"), loud guitar-heavy rock ("Aluminum Park," "Remnants"), airbrushed adult contemporary ("Thank You Too!"), moodier ballads ("Librarian," "Smokin' From Shootin'"), melancholic power pop ("Two Halve") that's more like The Smithereens than My Morning Jacket, and a bass-heavy 8-minute finale ("Touch Me I'm Going To Scream, Pt. 2") that's perfectly pleasant in its spacious atmospherics but which should've been much shorter. Again, these are generally solid songs, but in looking at the track listing, even after several listens, none of them jump out at me. On the whole, Evil Urges, with its comparatively short songs and increased reliance on electronics (I'm not crazy about the drum machines), lacks the epic expansiveness and evocative reverb-drenched atmospherics that I've come to expect from the band, and though I respect their continued experimentation and willingness to go against what's expected of them and what's "cool" (many of these songs hark back to the supposedly "uncool" '70s), I'd rather the band got back to what they're best at. James' vocals rarely soar like in the past, and the album's eclectic style jumping makes for a somewhat fractured listening experience. Still, this is My Morning Jacket we're talking about, so Evil Urges is a good album, it's just that they've done much better before.
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