My Morning Jacket’s music is often described as psychedelic rock or space rock, which might give the impression that the band from Louisville, Kentucky, is a sort of a stoner rock band. That would be wrong.
My Morning Jacket’s (or MMJ) music has integral elements that come from a wider range of genres: southern alternative country; 1970s rock; folk; progressive rock (marked by longer compositions with greater instrumentation); and even reggae. All that may seem a hodge-podge of influences, but it is not.
Melding all this together, MMJ, which has seven studio albums to its credit, make music that is uniquely their own. At the core of that uniqueness is frontman Jim James’s vocals whose sheer range is stunning – from the lows to the mids to a falsetto, few singers in contemporary non-classical genres can probably match his virtuosity.
Besides, MMJ, as I mentioned, have a genre-straddling ability that is singularly impressive. Last fortnight, the band released its seventh studio album, The Waterfall, on which its musical diversity remains intact.
There are some trademark attributes of MMJ’s music. James’ vocals, of course, which overwhelm everything else, but also the band’s inclination to employ reverb: where the sound produced by instruments as well as the vocals are made to reverberate a little, often giving the impression of sounds emerging from inside a tunnel.
Also watch: My Morning Jacket
For me the reverb factor makes MMJ a compelling band to listen to – in particular, how the reverb sounds on James’s vocals. And I’m glad that despite their considerable evolution from the albums of their early days (2001’s At Dawn, which was their second album – I confess, I haven’t heard their first, Tennessee Fire) to the more recent ones (2011’s Circuital) they haven’t jettisoned those attributes.
They’ve gone from their somewhat raggedy space-jamming early years, followed by some partially successful experimentation, to a more refined sound – The Waterfall, incidentally, has harmonies by Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard – but their songs still retain the quality of being able to transform into live show staples.
Believe (Nobody Knows) is the first song on their new album. It’s an uplifting song with the synthesizer and guitars taking off, while James sings about agnosticism or ambiguity or perhaps both: Roll the dice/ That sails the ship/ And all the doors will open. There’s no stopping them after that.
On the next song, Compound Fracture, James sings in falsetto on a song that seems to be straining at the bit to be performed live. Indeed, if you’ve heard live recordings of the band – 2006’s Okonokos is one – you can imagine each one of the new songs on The Waterfall being done in a concert: Believe and Compound Fracture, which are tailormade for such a performance; but also, the remaining dozen, such as the acoustic and reverb-laden Like A River on which James’s falsetto is again on grand display; or the slow-starter Spring (Among the Living), especially when it gathers momentum and becomes spacey, invoking some early MMJ vibes.
Also watch: Nucleus with Allan Holdsworth – Live 1972
MMJ hasn’t exactly been prolific with their studio albums – seven in 15 or 16 years is not too many. That may be because of their predilection (like many contemporary bands) to tour a lot or because of frontman James’s side or solo projects.
James has been in a folk supergroup, Monsters of Folk (which had, beside him, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes and M Ward, the solo artist); and last year, he collaborated with others on Lost On the River: The New Basement Tapes, a rediscovery of Bob Dylan’s unpublished lyrics from 1967, which James, Elvis Costello and others put to music.
In a recent interview with the British music magazine, Uncut, James has talked about the challenges of playing with Dylan on stage and about hanging about and snorkelling with the Dead’s Bob Weir.
The good news, however, is MMJ are back with The Waterfall, which reaffirms the band’s ability to do two things at once: be a muscular rock band as well as a flexible genre-hopper. Rare in rock that.
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
If I told you I’ve been listening to Snakeships Etcetera, Phaideaux’s Corner and Splat, what would you think they are? Well, it’s jazz. Or rather, jazz fused with rock and dating back to the 1970s.
The band is UK’s Nucleus (a friend drew attention to them a few weeks back), which existed between 1969 and 1989 and their star attraction was late frontman Ian Carr, trumpeter par excellence.
Other instruments in that ensemble used to include a variety of horns, guitars, piano and organ. The album those strangely named songs are from is called UK Tour ’76. That’s 1976. Yes, ancient. But terrific.
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Mud Morganfield and his half-brother “Big Bill” Morganfield play the blues. Sometimes they play together. I have a live recording of the two playing at the Chicago Blues Festival, doing songs such as Mannish Boy, Nineteen Years Old and Forty Days and Forty Nights, all songs that you can instantly recall as being standards sung by blues legend, the late Muddy Waters. No coincidence there because both the Morganfields are his sons. Remember Muddy Waters’ real name was McKinley Morganfield. Muddy died in 1983 but his two sons in their 50s–Mud’s the older one—keep his trademark Chicago blues sound and legacy alive. They play gigs. They cut records and have a considerably big fan following among blues aficionados. Read more