Career In Brief: My Morning Jacket


photo via YouAintNoPicasso.com

CAREER IN BRIEF: MY MORNING JACKET

From A Dreamer’s Dorm Room To Indie Rock Hegemony

Indulge me – MMJ’s meteoric rise to indie ascendancy can be paralleled with Google’s synchronistic rise to technological domination over the course of the last decade. Both began as the pet projects of nobody visionaries in the late 90’s; both slowly made a name for themselves by promoting humanistic ideas and an optimistic worldview; both went “big time” around the middle of the last decade; and both continue to push the envelope of what is still humanly possible in their respective realms.

While those similarities may be general enough to warrant comparisons between my sock drawer and Google, My Morning Jacket indeed achieved a profound rock and roll transcendence over the last 12 years by putting on one of the best live shows around (stealing the show quite frequently as an opening act and on a few occasions at Bonnaroo)  and pushing the limits of what rock and roll can be in a decidedly post-rock age. Led by hyper-charismatic frontman Jim James, the band is given to some excess, which has manifested itself on albums that are sometimes a little too drawn out, but that hasn’t stopped the fans from coming back for more. MMJ is in the business of action-packed indie rock blockbusters, and even if they do manage to lose the plot every once in a while, the spectacle is so brilliant that it’s hardly noticeable.

Personally, I’ve always had a preference for MMJ’s softer side. While classics like “The Way That He Sings” and “One Big Holiday” do bring down the hammer of the gods, James’ art shines brightest in quiet, humble settings. Their full-length debut, “The Tennessee Fire”, is still one of the high music points of the last 15 years, and similiar brilliance can be found sprinkled throughout their releases, from the weird-coustic of “Sooner” to an intergalactic cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” If you’re new to MMJ, my 20-song sampler below is a good place to start, but once you’ve fallen for the band, just sit back and enjoy the ride, one album by one.

20-TRACK SAMPLER
Mageetah
Olde Sept. Blues (Ga-Ed Out)
By My Car
Sooner (AC version)
Xmas Curtain (AD version)
Heartbreakin Man
Golden
O Is The One That Is Real
I’m Amazed
Rocket Man
Wordless Chorus
Off The Record
Anytime
Two Halves
Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt. 2
Lowdown
The Way That He Sings
Bermuda Highway
One Big Holiday (live – OKONOKOS)
I Just Wanted To Say


MAJOR/NOTABLE RELEASES:

The Tennessee Fire [1999] (A+): One of the most stunning debuts of the last 20 years, The Tennessee Fire radiates a sort of sleepy-eyed, post-apocalyptic Americana haze that sets it apart from the rest of the band’s catalog. It’s a slideshow of twilight dreams, the sort of record that seeps in through the pores of your skin and becomes a part of you. Magnificent. (R: “Heartbreakin Man”, “Old Sept. Blues”, “By My Car”)

Does Xmas Fiasco Style [2001] (B): The only bad thing I can say about this is that it’s merely an EP, and thus only 5 songs. Only 3 of these tracks are originals, but they come off as potential Christmas classics in the old-school sense. You won’t find corny jingles about Santa Claus (ok – you’ll find one, though it’s obscure), but you’ll find plenty of homegrown nostalgia through and through. (R: “Christmas Time Is Here Again”, “I Just Wanted To Say”)

At Dawn [2001] (B+): The band makes the jump from hushed, lo-fi Kentuckiana alt-country to full-spectrum, wall-of-sound rock. James’ muli-tracked voice really shines here, and although there is a bit of filler (“Honest Man”, “If It Smashes Down”), the highlights are so grand that you’ll barely notice. (R: “Lowdown”, “Bermuda Highway”, “The Way That He Sings”)

Split [2002] (C-): “O” and “Come Closer” would have made a solid 7″ single by themselves – the other 2 tracks are essentially throwaways. (R: “O Is The One That Is Real”)

Choclate & Ice [2002] (A): James takes a detour toward his softer side on what is essentially a solo affair, although the eccentric “Sooner” and the epic “Cobra” would figure prominently in the band’s live sets in the years to come. C&I is the sort of indulgent interlude that demonstrates that great artists sometimes make their best stuff when fewer people are looking. (R: “Cobra”, “Sooner”)

It Still Moves [2003] (A-): The band’s major label debut features the glorious “Mahgeetah” and the gorgeous “Golden.” The recording doesn’t quite achieve what they seem to have been going for (sounds a little hollow rather than cathedral-esque), but nevertheless this is an outstanding set of songs that would form the core of the band’s live sets for the next 7 years. (R: “Mahgeetah”, “I Will Sing You Songs”, “Golden”)

Acoustic Citsuoca [2004] (B+): James once again attacks things mostly by himself on this live recording. “The Bear” sounds incredible and “Sooner” sounds fantastically cross-eyed. My only complaint is that it isn’t a full-length. I would have loved a whole record of solo Jim James at this point (how about a live cover of “Rocket Man”, plus more Omnichord please!!!!). (R: “Sooner”, “The Bear”)

Chapter 1 [2004] (C+): Sure, b-sides, rarities, and demos are great, but there’s a lot of filler here. I’d rather get one CD of the best stuff. Why no “RIPVG?” (R: “Weeks Go By Like Days”, “Rocket Man”, “Olde Sept Blues (Ga-Ed Out)”)

Chapter 2 [2004] (C): See comments for CHAPTER 1. (R: “Tonite I Want 2 Celebrate w/ You”, “Tyrone”)

Z [2005] (A): An album shot through with questions about endings and what lies beyond, it’s perhaps the most soulful record in the band’s entire catalog. “Knot Comes Loose” is priceless, featuring JJ at his most vulnerable. Elsewhere, “Wordless Chorus”, “Gideon”, and “Anytime” deliver the most grandiose rock sound since the good parts of Use Your Illusion. Another masterpiece. (R: “Wordless Chorus”, “What A Wonderful Man”, “Dondante”)

Okonokos [2006] (A-): Let’s face it – MMJ have made their name as a live act. OKONOKOS is the first, full-blown testimony to that fact. The recording quality is marvelous, and you haven’t heard tracks like “One Big Holiday”, “Run Thru”, and “Dondante” until you’ve heard them live. I would have liked a tiny bit more from the older records, but there’s so much here, it’s hard to complain. (R: “One Big Holiday”, “Run Thru”, “At Dawn”)

Evil Urges [2008] (B-): The band reaches for something even bigger than Z on their fifth full-length, incorporating R&B and funk influences and even diving headfirst into some throwback numbers. Although some of it pays off (“Thank You Too”, “Two Halves”), some of it falls short (“Librarian”, “Highly Suspicious”). All in all, not bad, but a step down from Z. I’m hoping to see the band re-charge their creative batteries, re-consider their vision, and deliver a fantastic, left-field follow-up sometime in 2011. A full-length solo record from JJ wouldn’t be bad either. (R: “I’m Amazed”, “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream pt. 2”, “Thank You Too”)

Rarities: JJ is the sort of creative genius who records 5 new songs before breakfast. There exists an extensive back catalog of home and 4-track recordings from the old days, as well as early, lost recordings that will probably never see the light of day. The band hasn’t recorded a ton of b-sides since they made it big, but when they do, they are generally of a pretty exceptional caliber. Early acoustic ditty “RIPVG” is definitely worth seeking out, as is the full band recording of “Chills” and a handful of other great tracks (esp. their cover of The Band’s “It Makes No Difference”). (R: “RIPVG”, “Chills”, “How Could I Know”, “Where To Begin”, “It Makes No Difference”)

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