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
[Saddle Creek / Paper Bag Records] 2011
The Rural Alberta Advantage are a three piece from (duh) Alberta, Canada, who play plaintive, direct and honest music that could be described as Indie Pop, or Alternative Rock, or – uh… well, they use lots of acoustic instruments and some occasional synth sounds, keyboards, and they have real drums and vocals with no autotune or silly effects. (Make of that what you will, I’m sick of trying to figure out what the hell any of these iPod genres actually mean.)
2008′s Hometowns was probably my favorite album of the year – I instantly warmed to the sparse instrumentation, simple musicality, compelling rhythms and engaging and stark honesty of the record. If you loved that record, I can safely assure you that this new offering is going to delight, if not surprise you.
Raw, lo-fi (again with the genre tags!), simple, musically direct and emotive, this new record continues the sounds and angst of Hometowns, although production this time around is notably shinier. Lyrically, Departing feels as though the songs are a little young, they seem somehow green – occasionally stilted or awkward. The standard themes are reprised here, love and human connection, the anatomy of loss and pain, all set against the backdrop of the Canadian provincial landscape.
What Nils Edenloff’s vocals lack in technique, they make up with heart. His vocal style and affectations can be an impediment to first time listeners, and the unavoidable comparisons with Jeff Mangum from Alt-Darlings Neutral Milk Hotel are something of a standby. Amy Cole’s back up vocals, harmonies and simple keys and glockenspiel are almost accidental, like found poetry, but they provide a delicate and equally honest counterpoint to Nils heartfelt narratives. Paul Banwatt’s drums sound fantastic, with cymbals crisp and clear, although his formidable skill as a drummer is showcased less with flair and more with impeccable minimalism than on the previous album.
There’s something about the directness of this band that engages me at an emotional level, that viscerally connects with those emotions of my youth to allow me to be transported back to those moments of confusion, of fear and shame, of social awkwardness. As a teenager, with thinly veiled bravado surrounding a core of fear and desperation, I found myself engaged in adult pursuits in a world that didn’t ever seem to conform to the expectations that I constructed for it. Today, that world still doesn’t exist, and the RAA have a way of reminding me of that. On shout out loud tracks like Torando 87, or Stamp, the band in full-flight has something to say that is not actually contained in the lyrics, or the tempo, or the musical complexity. It’s contained in the heart of the band, in the stark, conveyance of emotions.
On Two Lovers, Nils sings “And if I ever hold you again, I’ll hold you tight enough to crush your veins/I hope your heart is good and strong, if you ever find yourself in my arms” There’s a yearning behind those sentiments, bordering on crazy, that we relate to. Of wanting something so badly that you want to completely engulf it. Of being so full of emotion, so overjoyed that you really don’t know exactly what it is you will do next. At it’s strongest moments, that feeling is the kind of emotive reality that the Rural Alberta Advantage can inspire in you. Departing is not as strong an album as its predecessor, but these moments are still plentiful.
Should a band be forced to change? Should every band move away from what it’s done in the past, and take it’s fans along with it to new and unexplored musical heights? I don’t know. I mean, I love what bands like Radiohead are doing. If artists need to change, or to challenge their audiences, then sure, that’s cool.
However, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is a cliche for a reason. Perhaps the ‘risk’ of not changing is that the listeners will tire of their efforts, and move on to something different.
I’m certainly not tired of this band, of their sound, or their message. Highly Recommended.
Musichord Rating: 8.5/10