My Morning Jacket

TrackAlbum
LowdownAt Dawn
DancefloorsIt Still Moves
GoldenIt Still Moves
What A Wonderful ManZ
Off the RecordZ
I'm AmazedEvil Urges
Aluminum ParkEvil Urges
CircuitalCircuital
Outta My SystemCircuital
Big DecisionsThe Waterfall

My Morning Jacket photo 1

MMJ (l to r): Patrick Hallahan (drums), Carl Broemel (guitar), Jim James (vocals/guitar), Bo Koster (keyboards), Tom Blankenship (bass)

 

 

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MMJ playlist

 

 

Contributor: Marc Fagel

I don’t get out to as many concerts as I did in my youth. Long before COVID, I had cut way back, as middle age made the thought of standing in a crowded club late into the night increasingly unpalatable. Still, there are certain bands that I’ll make sure to see whenever they’re in town, and at the top of that list is My Morning Jacket. Like an American take on, say, U2, MMJ are a band that know how to fill a venue with wall-to-wall sound. More than just the judicious use of reverb (though there is plenty of that), the band, from Jim James’s soaring croon to the riveting blend of acoustic and electric guitars to the massive rhythm section, they simply sound … big. Just damn huge.

Which isn’t to say they don’t sound great on record. But it took them a few stabs to get it just right, expanding their sonic palette to capture the overwhelming Sensurround live sensation on record. Their earlier work was lower key Americana, country- and folk-tinged rock in the tradition of 70s-era Neil Young, with shades of Southern rock and gospel and R&B. Over time, they incorporated some spacy, stretched-out jams, more Pink Floyd than the Grateful Dead, while delivering some big, booming anthems worthy of Tom Petty or the Stones. Not surprisingly, as much as I enjoy their quieter, more introspective work, the Top 10 I’ve selected focuses on the latter category, the stand-alone powerhouse tunes that lend themselves particularly well to a mixtape; but this shouldn’t give short shrift to their more atmospheric, slow-building deep cuts.

The Louisville, Kentucky band’s 1999 debut, The Tennessee Fire, arguably placed them among the various players in the bushy-bearded Freak Folk scene, somewhat traditional folky Americana distinguished by its open, airy vibe, as if James were belting the songs out in a huge stadium (or at least a large abandoned barn). But the songs themselves are still fairly modest and stripped down, mostly acoustic save for the occasional wailing guitar solo. There are some fine songs here, most notably the percussive, almost garage band groove of It’s About Twilight Now and the pretty twang of Evelyn Is Not Real, but there’s still the feel of a band trying to find their sound.

The 2001 follow-up, At Dawn, took a huge leap forward, both sonically (with the crystalline production making a clean break from the largely lo-fi debut) and musically. While still relatively laid back, the band brought along a few huge hooks, particularly on the majestic Lowdown, with its ringing riff and James’s passionate performance. The Way That He Sings is a gorgeous ballad, lush and enveloping, while Just Because I Do is a more traditional rocker, one of the earlier indications of the band’s arena-friendly inclinations.

But it’s on 2003’s It Still Moves that My Morning Jacket really hit their stride. The sound is comparable to At Dawn, the room-filling reverb and resurrected John Bonham-like pounding drums still leaving plenty of space for quietly insinuating guitars; but the songs continue to get better and better. Opener Mahgeetah is another catchy rocker, but that’s just prelude to Dancefloors, a rousing, upbeat anthem that would instantly be placed into regular rotation on classic rock radio, Lynyrd Skynyrd for post-punk grown-ups, if FM classic rock radio hadn’t stopped playing new music sometime around 1980. Golden, another personal favorite, is a gentle finger-picker, lovely Americana twang that seems custom-built for your next road trip. One Big Holiday and the slower, psychedelic Run Thru are, like Dancefloors, impressive anthems, platforms for on-your-feet concert staples yet still powerful in the studio iterations. Yet even among the glorious bombast, there are some languid, sprawling tunes better suited for kicking back on the sofa as the sun sets, making it a particularly well-rounded effort.

My favorite long player from the band, however, is 2005’s Z, which culls out some of the quieter meanderings and stakes a bold claim to straightforward classic rock canonization, unabashedly embracing the band’s inner Zeppelin while remaining firmly rooted in their rustic Americana roots. The band plainly announces its intention to mix things up on the opening Wordless Chorus, an organ-driven number that finds James enlisting a near-falsetto, moving the band’s sound squarely into blue-eyed soul territory. And while the next few tunes represent logical progressions from It Still Moves, the band really explodes on What A Wonderful Man, an energetic, rocking anthem that doesn’t waste a note, clocking in at under two and a half minutes. This is almost prelude to the glorious Off The Record, a powerful guitar riff-rocker (shades of the Hawaii Five-O theme) that begs for audience shout-out participation, only to veer off into a deep space jam reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s Echoes. (Not surprisingly, it’s a stellar part of the band’s live set.) Z squeezes in a few more of its booming, ready-made anthems in Anytime and Lay Low, culminating in the extended album closer Dondante – a hushed ballad that breaks loose into a jamming vehicle (only hinted at on record, but a monster when stretched out to 20 minutes on stage).

Following the obligatory double-live release (discussed below), MMJ returned to the studio for 2008’s Evil Urges, which, while arguably falling just shy of Z’s peak glories, is still perfectly solid, indeed often great (even managing a Grammy nomination for best alternative rock album). The lead-off title track has James leaning on that falsetto again, this time perhaps a little more campy but wedded to another fine, soulful tune. Highly Suspicious pushes that sound perhaps a little too far into faux funk silliness, but the band redeems itself with the perfect little pop-rock nugget I’m Amazed, another stunning sing-along anthem that stands as one of the finest mergers of rock and gospel in modern music. No less rousing is the similarly engaging guitar-driven rocker Aluminum Park; in a just universe, this would be a top-selling single, ultimately ruined by radio overplay and repeated use in television commercials hawking Pepsi and Volkswagen. Alas, the album is balanced out by a number of quiet ballads which, while by no means bad, feel a tad under-baked in comparison to the record’s peaks.

2011’s Circuital doesn’t vary dramatically from Evil Urges, though it’s arguably a tighter album, editing out some (but not all) of the more superfluous moments and allowing its highlights to shine a bit more brightly. After another quietly compelling opening number in Victory Dance, the stand-out title track plays to the band’s strengths, a hushed, understated opening cutting loose into a riveting chorus that weaves together acoustic and electric guitars, before launching into a flashy, spirited back-end; it’s another one that sounds fantastic on record, but particularly reveals itself in a live setting. There are a few catchy, nearly pop-oriented tracks like the steadily building Outta My System (and the comparable First Light), as well as the brassy and campy Holdin’ On To Black Metal (which recycles some of the falsettos and silliness from the prior album but tethers them to a far more entertaining, brightly cheerful tune).

 

 

The band slowed down its recording schedule after Circuital (filling time with intermittent touring and some Jim James side-projects), returning in 2015 with The Waterfall and, five years later, The Waterfall II. Personally, I’ve found the latter pair to be a bit of a disappointment after the run of great records that preceded them. While less a tour de force that its predecessors, the first Waterfall at least had a few stand-out tracks, most notably the catchy Big Decisions, a bit of a throwback to the band’s heyday with its scream-it-to-the-rafters chorus, as well as the quietly insinuating Believe and the perky R&B-tinged pop of Compound Fracture. But this year’s Waterfall II – perhaps hampered by dropping in the middle of a pandemic, when the world really could have used a few more I’m Amazed-styled inspirational pieces – has yet to win me over, though Climbing The Ladder is a lighthearted romp and Wasted works up some dark psychedelic vibes.

 

The Live MMJ

As noted up front, I don’t think you can fully appreciate My Morning Jacket without hearing them live. Assuming the opportunity to attend a concert in the immediate future isn’t in the cards, you’ll have to settle for the next best thing, a live recording. 2006’s Okonokos, working the classic rock double-live trope, serves as an excellent overview of the band’s repertoire up to that point. Check out the live version of Z’s Dondante, a sprawling epic that moves from a gospel-like ballad to a raging guitar jam to a spaced-out sax-abetted Pink Floyd odyssey, and you can feel the breadth of what they could do on stage. 2009’s shorter Celebracion De La Ciudad Natal adds a few more tunes to their official live catalog (and another take on Dondante).

The band has also released a number of complete concert recordings through nugs.net. Fans inclined to dig deeper should check out their three-night Mexico run from February 2017, where in addition to a deep dive through their catalog, they treated fans to inspired covers of Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Prince, Bowie, and Dylan.

 

My Morning Jacket poster

Jim James Side Projects

While best served by a separate Toppermost, James (either under his own name or as Yim Yames) has released a number of solo records over the years. These tend to be more restrained affairs, ranging from folk to electronica, lacking the bold reach and big rock anthems of the band’s best work (with the exception of the noisy, post-punk indie rock of 2018’s Uniform Distortion), appealing to fans of My Morning Jacket’s moodier, quieter side.

He also appears on several excellent collaborative efforts. In 2009, James joined the supergroup Monsters of Folk (alongside Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and others) for a one-off self-titled album, adding lead vocals to a few tracks (notably Losin’ Yo Head) which would fit in nicely in the MMJ songbook. And 2012’s New Multitudes sees James joining Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt’s Jay Farrar and others for a set of excellent country-rock songs based around unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics (Farrar unexpectedly following in his former bandmate Jeff Tweedy’s footsteps).

 

My Morning Jacket photo 2

Jim James photographed by Shervin Lainez

 

 

My Morning Jacket official website

My Morning Jacket facebook

My Morning Jacket discography (wikipedia)

From Nashville To Kentucky
The illustrated My Morning Jacket discography 1995-2006

My Morning Jacket Live Music Archive

My Morning Jacket posters

Jim James official website

Carl Broemel official website

Carl Broemel archived website

Esquire 2020 interview with Jim James

The Great Rock Bible biography

MMJ Pitchfork features

My Morning Jacket biography (AllMusic)

Marc Fagel is a recovering lawyer living outside San Francisco with his wife and his obscenely oversized music collection. He is the author of the recently-published rock lover’s memoir “Jittery White Guy Music”. His daily ruminations on random albums in his collection can be seen on his blog of the same name, or by following him on twitter. Marc’s previous posts include Raveonettes, Phish, Luna, Jesus and Mary Chain, Feelies, Genesis, Wilco, King Crimson and Brian Eno.

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