My Morning Jacket’s latest album, Circuital, was released May 31st, and the hype machine was out in full force to promote it. And, for good reason. My Morning Jacket (MMJ), now on tour to support their latest release, has become arguably one of the biggest bands on the planet. And, in recent years, co-founder and lead singer/guitarist Jim James (or, on most other projects, Yim Yames) has done his part by putting his hands in almost every pot out there. Ranging from solo projects, (a George Harrison cover EP), side projects (The Monsters of Folk, with Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes, and M. Ward.), providing vocals for other bands (such as Dr. Dog and The Decemberists, just to start), to constant and intense touring, and even following Jack White’s lead and starting his own record label, Removador Records, James has been a man in motion.
With their latest, the southern rockers from Louisville, Kentucky, who have built a reputation for delivering unbelievable live shows, continue to turn out great rock and roll. However, if they are maybe a little less experimental on Circuital than they were on their last album, Evil Urges, it’s understandable. Doing much of the album in live takes, Circuital was mainly recorded in a church gymnasium in Louisville, and mixed in Nashville, and according to Jim James:
“Z was looser than Evil Urges. On Evil Urges, we deliberately tried to get it as exact as we could – which we had never done – but I think that for us, that was kind of a stressful process that we didn’t end up enjoying, and didn’t want to replicate. This process (recording Circuital) has been a lot more free. We found an organic space that was kind of our own – it wasn’t a normal studio – to really grow and make the record in, and explore by ourselves.”
My initial recommendation is to say buy this album; if you like MMJ, you’ll like Circuital, and if you don’t know MMJ, you will still most likely like it. It has all of the elements that have made MMJ the inventive, creative band they are, kick-ass guitar, great vocals, sing-along choruses that instantly bounce around in your head, and a mix of genres that they distill down to their own brand of rock and roll. But, if you don’t like MMJ, this album may not be the one to convert you.
While MMJ has laid claim to a certain sound that is all their own, there does not seem to be a lot of new ground covered on their latest. The music is great…but there are no real surprises and nothing quite jumping out at me musically. Certainly not compared to It Still Moves (with their masterpiece song, “Golden”) or Z. At the same time this is one of those albums that you instantly feel will take multiple listens to even begin to decipher and appreciate. That is certainly not a bad thing; as brilliant a band as MMJ is, their music makes a little bit of work worth it. Pop candy, it’s not.
The opener, “Victory Dance,” has vague elements of Pink Floyd, (as does “You Wanna Freak Out,” which honestly sounds like it could be a song from Ween), a Bob Seger classic rock feel, and sonic soundscapes that turn into a sped-up crescendo, before fading into Circuital, the title track.
The first single, “Holdin onto Black Metal,” is guitar led, but with added horns, bright harmonies, James’s high, taut falsetto, and a children’s choir chorus. In “The Day is Coming,” Jim James’s uproarious vocals seem to be an anthemic call to action, “The Day is Coming, the day is near..the way is clear.”
“First Light,” offers a Black Keys fuzzy-guitar sound, and hopeful outlook, and, like most of their songs, many jumping off points to grow into a killer ten-minute live jam. Circuital also has soulful and piano-based songs like “Movin’ Away,” a teary ballad to something we all must go through, a change in love, life, and home. “A new life to create,” sings Jim James in the album closer. An album which also clocks in as the shortest in the MMJ discography, about 45 minutes, as opposed to an average of an hour for earlier albums.
Circuital is an album of complicated textures, of multiple guitar riffs playing off each other, and music that veers from organized pop structures to thrashing rock and roll, to ’70s piano and acoustic, to funk and soul riffs, to old-school country to ‘60s-sounding Beach Boys melodies and harmonies (“Outta My System”). As my Musichord partner in crime Gordon noted to me after his first listen, “It’s kind of like if Radiohead made a country record. I can’t figure out if it’s alt country trying to be weird, or weird trying to be alt country?”
Good question. Melding all of these fantastic influences and sounds into a cohesive album that you can still sing along and bang your head to is really a big part of what makes MMJ great. Well, that, and their incessant touring and powerful, blow-it-all-out concerts that melt your face off.
A band that has achieved the success that they have, inevitably leads to a band trying to redefine themselves or struggling to find their identity, as success can’t help but change a band’s identity. Regardless, they are confident in their spot in the music world, the music they’re making and the music they are going to make, and while Circuital isn’t going to alter the musical universe, it’s one more bright spot in this band’s dazzlingly brilliant career and catalog.
My Morning Jacket, formed in 1998, is: Jim James/Yim Yames (singer-songwriter, guitars), “Two-Tone” Tommy (bass), Patrick Hallahan (drums), Carl Broemel (guitars, pedal steel guitar, saxophone, vocals), and Bo Koster (keyboards, percussion, vocals.)
Musichord Rating: 7/10
[Rough Trade] 2010
Taking on a review of a Belle and Sebastian record is a somewhat more ambitious undertaking than many album reviews. Belle and Sebastian (B&S), named after a boy and his dog from a French TV show for children, are not the average rock band, or pop band…or average band at all. And while much of their music may sound like pop candy, that sells their artistry very short, as there is actually great substance behind Belle and Sebastian and their music. For that reason, it is incredibly difficult to pigeonhole B&S – and I’ve heard a lot of descriptions – indie, of course, chamber pop, twee pop, baroque pop…but nothing quite fits the bill, though some come close, always just nipping at the edges of an accurate description. B&S, led by Stuart Murdoch, is a collection of art-school musicians who make music that fits their own unique style, and with seemingly very little concern for “hits” or “popularity”. Write About Love, their eighth album, follows a four-year layoff, with Murdoch working on a long-term side project, God Help the Girl, in between.
I will admit right away, I love B&S and I have all of their albums, all of their singles, all of their B-sides, live concerts, etc. and I am still not half the fan that some people I know are. Have you ever read through the posts on their website? Morrisey (a key influence of Murdoch’s) has less obsessively devoted fans, I think. Well, maybe not. Regardless, it’s understandable, as B&S’s beautiful music draws a crowd. The lyrics are intelligent, and they display that wounded, vulnerable pain that a certain type of girl – and guy as well – is drawn to. We love to know that we’re not the only ones mired in this misery of live, love, rejection, and failure. Even when it’s sunny, there’s some rain falling. Murdoch’s lyrics carry you in and out of these situations, and sometimes, even into a jubilant, if somewhat bittersweet, triumph. Belle and Sebastian know how to cast a great pop hook like a giant net and reel listeners in.
The addition of strings, horns, and sometimes more complicated arrangements and instrumentation by B&S not only shows off their musical sensibilities, but also leads to the “sweet” pop sound that they get labeled with. While some songs are slow and wistful, and some are more upbeat, there is an underlying wistfulness and romantic tension to much of this album and B&S’s music in general, and the contradiction between the upbeat music and the melancholy lyrics often makes for fabulous songs, with lyrics like, “I can see your future (there’s nobody around)”.
On their latest, there are several female guest vocalists, including Norah Jones on “Little Lou, Uncle John, Prophet Jack”, (probably one of the better tracks on the album) very much a 70s-sounding type of heartbreak ballad. The God Help the Girl album, which Stuart recorded with all female singers, seemed to be an extension of Murdoch’s story-telling songwriting for other people and other voices. The tinges of 60s pop, call and answer songwriting and tight arrangements lend themselves well to Murdoch’s wounded, and often ambiguous lyrics. B&S has been known for their lilting harmonies, and boy/girl vocals and have used them to great effect again on this album.
This album starts out strong, but seems to lose some punch in the second half, starting with I’m Not Living in the Real World, which, when I heard it, I thought, “This must be a Stevie song,” another case of the guitarist wanting to try his hand at songwriting and singing, a la George Harrison – but the comparison ends there. Stevie Jackson has put a smattering of songs on various albums, with varying luck. This effort was a little more unlucky and does not hold together. The track opener stands apart from most of the rest of the album, with sonic, almost trippy, landscapes of funky beats, keyboards, echoes, and mellow, yet searing guitar (can that happen?) which draws you in immediately. The second track “Come On Sister” has an 80s synth feel to it, while “I Want the World to Stop” has a great groove and a decidedly 70s feel to it, not surprisingly, mixing influences that evoke music from past decades of music crucial to B&S’s musical development. From there, however, the quality of songs seems to decline, with none of the songs standing out nearly as much as the previous songs. Track 9, Read the Blessed Pages, has a sound somewhere between a Christmas song and a funeral dirge.
Stuart Murdoch is an extremely clever songwriter and he is surrounded by great musicians who share his love for quirky pop rock. In comparison to many of their past albums, though, this one just seems to fall a little short. However, I felt the same way about their last album, The Life Pursuit, at first, and it ended up growing on me over time. Belle and Sebastian is a great band, so I will definitely give it the time. If you’re a fan of 60s and 70s pop, and catchy intelligent music, I would still absolutely recommend getting this album (and seeing them live if you get the chance). Then, sit down, grab a glass of wine, soak in the mellow groovin’ vibes and listen to sunny and rainy days pass you buy. It won’t be long before you will not be able to stop from singing along.
Musichord Rating: 6/10