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
When I was first curious about The Radio Department’s third and latest album, Clinging To A Scheme, and read a review on Amazon, one of the band’s fans mentioned “shoegazing”, a popular term for the churning guitar alternative bands from the late 80s and early 90s, some of whom were so shy on stage, (or had so many guitar pedals on the floor) that they barely moved, and often stared at the floor – all the while putting out swirling guitar noise and rock that was positively hypnotic. Synthesizers and keyboards were a big part of the shoegazer “wall of sound” that was so great – used by bands like Lush, Spiritualized and My Bloody Valentine. And at least some of Clinging To A Scheme brings to mind some great early 90s dream pop bands like House of Love and The Ocean Blue. But with shoegazing, a repetitive drone sound is expected, and while the term is possibly apt for The Radio Dept., there is not as much noise and distortion, as there is melody, beats and rhythmic grooves.
The strongest band comparison, however, is where the trippy sounds and bouncy beats actually bring to mind Royksopp, mixing acoustic guitar with mellow vocals and interlaced keyboard melodies to create some toe-tappin’ pop nuggets. I noted the comparison to Royskopp before I found out the Radio Dept. was originally a duo from Sweden, just as Royksopp is a duo from Norway. (The Radio Dept. is a 5-piece band now) They don’t list Royksopp as an influence, but there is a definite comparison to be made. The Radio Dept.’s website does, however, list among their influences Nick Drake, Chet Baker and French crooner Charles Aznavour, an eclectic selection.
The Radio Dept. utilizes bits of random psychedelic sounds, muted and synthesized vocals, and even clips of background voices to build their sound (voices which seem to be cut from radio interviews – one of which is godfather Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth espousing how we “should destroy the bogus capitalist process that is destroying youth culture”), at the beginning of “Heaven’s on Fire” a super catchy and upbeat keyboard-oriented 80s-style jam. Clinging To A Scheme builds on steady beats with guitar and keyboards; and while I don’t prefer synthesized beats and drum machines, they are certainly used to great effect here.
Throughout this album, the Radio Dept. stay true to their form, though with some definite experimentation and mixing of genres, which helps keep the music from becoming too stagnant. One or two tracks had a slight reggae feel, like “Never Follow Suit”, with a slightly funky bassline, while “A Token of Gratitude” is a decidedly spacey, almost Pink Floydish track with atmospherics and layered textures of sound.
Because of this, Clinging To A Scheme is the type of album that is appreciated even more when listened to through headphones. This album isn’t groundbreaking by any stretch, but it is an excellent collection of trippy synthesized pop grooves, definitely worthy of your ear. And if you like this album, the Radio Dept. has just released the double CD Passive Aggressive: Singles 2002-2010, effectively a compilation of rarities and b-sides – something more for the hardcore fans, but it may not take you long to become that type of fan.
Musichord Rating: 7.5/10
If you haven’t seen Kanye’s short film, Runaway, It’s like a kind of mega-music video, in the vein of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, or Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It’s tells the tale of a Phoenix that crashes down to earth, and her adventures that follow, all set to tunes from Kanye’s latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
You can check out the whole thing below (assuming you have the time).