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THE HEART OF ROCK N ROLL


MMJ has emerged unafraid to incorporate funky R&B bass runs and bird call whistling and an undeniable Elton John infatuation into the mix.


MMJ has emerged unafraid to incorporate funky R&B bass runs and bird call whistling and an undeniable Elton John infatuation into the mix.

THE HEART OF ROCK N ROLL

My Morning Jacket
Z
(Sony)

My Morning Jacket holds a very special place in my heart, and actually triggered some changes in my life, like pretty much no other band did. They didn't convince me to get married or get divorced or quit my job or kill people or anything, but an unbelievably enthusiastic article about them in Oxford American's 2003 Music Annual, not only convinced me that this echoey spectre of a band was not only the greatest band I'd never heard, but the article called me to start committing my rabid enthusiasms to print in the auspices of the Internet.

Evidently, I wasn't the only one affected, since MMJ was the 2003 Gonna-Save-Rock-n-roll band, with accolades coming from all points of the music press understandably slobbering all over their perfect album At Dawn. The band then embodied a sort of indie Southern Rock that had fallen down a well, like if Neil Young could really, really sing and was doing do from the end of that tunnel of light you see when you die. A year or so later, their album It Still Moves came along and with the weird multi-part melodies and Jim James increasingly dude-diva voice, they went form being the new Led Zeppelin to being the new Heart, and that kinda killed the buzz around them. Not that there is anything wrong with Heart, just look at the copious responses to our omission of Nancy Wilson from our list of hot female guitarists - but its just not the kind of name that gets the average records store clerk's jade heart to flutter.

The much awaited Z doesn't do much to rectify the problem. In fact, during the end of the transcendent organ throbber "Wordless Chorus" that opens the record, James gets all backup singer on us in the reverbed mic and even quotes a little from "Benny and the Jets" at the end. But that's what you get when you expect someone to go save rock-n-roll, they look at it and decide either its not worth saving, or is doing fine on its own and it only affirms their resolve down whatever personal path they were on. But damn, James has one fluttery songbird up in his gullet. Even on "It Beats For You" where it veers back into more rock territory, he warbles and chirps with the best of them. But then the whole band has gone through some sort of mid-life crisis. It reminds me of the step taken by The Flaming Lips when they embraced their inner-arranger on The Soft Bulletin - MMJ has emerged unafraid to incorporate funky R&B bass runs and bird call whistling and an undeniable Elton John infatuation into the mix.

And maybe just a little U2 as well, since songs like "Gideon" and "Anytime" have that heart-soaring Bono vs. The Edge thing going on back before the Bane of Ireland got all glam and recursive, and were stirring and even a little noble. But these comparisons are still all stylistic: I've never really understood the lyrics behind James' voice, instead I'm happy to wallow in their arena-ready excess and lushness. It is really exquisite stuff, even if its kind of a fluffy cloud at times.

There are a couple really great roaring rock moments on this album that redeem it in the eyes of anyone holding onto their past: One is a minute into the piano led rocker "What a Wonderful Man" where the band adopts the sing song structure for a minute to get all unhinged nasty like they were The Black Keys with a bigger budget. Another is the Ventures-tinged "Off the Record" that follows it, which is propelled with a lurching surf riff that holds back enough to keep from being anachronistic. But both of these show what makes this album really stick out - its a weird record. Not a style-mishmash or unfocused affair as I've heard it called elsewhere, but one very focused on some thing else than you are used to hearing. It's kind of like skittery memory, like drug flash backs, like cycling through moods and thoughts in a flash, kinda like Heart on magna opera like "Magic Man" and "Barracuda" especially noticeable in the organ bit in "Off the Record." Backwards vocals, Wurlitzer organ burnouts, bursts of drum machine and scattered showers of guitar funk make this one of the most complex numbers I've heard in a while, since "Run Thru" on their last album. All I'm saying is that if we are really craving complexity in our pop music, lets drop the Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney fetishism for a while and hoist Ann and Nancy up on our shoulders. And maybe when our kids get tired of whatever bubblegum punk whitewash over a marketing scheme the are subjected to, some enterprising youth will be rummaging through their parents dusty mp3 collection and discover the seductive weirdness of My Morning Jacket and their cosmic dogs and butterflies will be loosed, laughing up to the sky once again.

Oh, if you want to bypass the evil player thingy that comes up when you plant the disc in a PC, kill the PlayDisc.exe process in the Windows Task Manager.

Alex V. Cook

Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com


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