October 27, 2005

My Morning Jacket: Z

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In recent years critical darlings such as Radiohead have achieved devoted followings, partially due to their innovative electronic approach to rock and roll. Yet, Radiohead’s success is predicated upon their ability to write songs with complex melodies that are unconventional by all means. In turn, they come off sounding unmistakably like themselves, and no one else. It is for this very reason that I become frustrated when I read reviews in which critics refer to My Morning Jacket, a rock outfit from Kentucky as “America’s own Radiohead.”

With their newest release Z, My Morning Jacket does indeed flirt with electronic keyboard sounds and layered production techniques. The best songs on this album, however, are the ones that would likely sound just as good if played on acoustic guitars, stripped entirely of effects and distractions. Frankly, the critical over-appreciation of all things weird has evolved into a tacit message that adding random, nonsensical noises in the background of a simple song will transform it into some sort of masterpiece.

On the album’s opening track, “Wordless Chorus,” the use of various tools in the studio undoubtedly enhanced the song’s potential. The plethora of reverb applied to singer Jim James’ voice creates a beautiful, multifaceted sound, especially during his melodic, falsetto outro. The electronic bass sound and muted high guitar riff also provide ample support to the vocal line without drawing too much attention. While it may seem obvious, without a well crafted song, even the perfect application of production techniques would fall short.

This is evidenced on “Into the Woods,” a five-minute track about random nonsense. After 15 seconds of woodsy noises and birds chirping, an organ enters playing choppy, staccato chords. Shortly thereafter, James begins singing, “A kitten on fire, a baby in a blender, both sound as sweet as a night of surrender.” It goes to show that there is a difference between trying to write obscure, artsy lyrics and being an obscure, artsy lyricist. As expected, there are plenty of random effects, courtesy of guest whistle player Andrew Bird, to keep the listener distracted from the pretentious lyrical babble and the circus-like feel of the track.

“Lay Low,” albeit a bit long, is proof that My Morning Jacket did in fact listen to some straight up rock music at some point. The guitars are crunchy, the vibe is direct, the jam is intricate, and, as Bob Dylan proved, it’s always a good thing when the word “amphetamines” can be worked into a song’s lyrical. “What a Wonderful Man” and “Dondante” are much to the same effect: rock and roll that needs not be dressed up in order to make a point.

Sooner or later critics and musicians alike are going to realize that they have placed such a high price on being different that being weird for the sake of weirdness has become more important than being great for the sake of music. When that happens, talented bands like My Morning Jacket will start making albums that are a cohesive collection of songs impressive in any context, rather than a smattering of good songs coupled with the need to try too hard.

Archived article by Scott Eisman
Sun Staff Writer