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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I’d thought I’d be able to give Bob Dylan’s new album a good long listen and then perhaps write my two bits about it in this instalment of DC. Tempest, Dylan’s 35th album, came out on September 11; I managed to get hold of it a couple of days later but before I could properly listen to it, the deadline of this column was upon me (Brunch goes to press really early in the week and its editor is quite a strict disciplinarian when it comes to deadlines). I don’t know about you but I just can’t casually listen to any of Dylan’s albums, particularly a brand new one from a living legend who is now 71. Dylan’s isn’t by any stretch ambient music. It requires focused listening. Read more
Many new musicians can remind you of older (and sometimes more famous) ones. Three years ago, I’d written about the Rhode Island-based alternative folk and blues band, Deer Tick, and mentioned how uncannily Bob Dylanesque their lead singer, John McCauley sounds—so much so that a colleague after hearing them play even dubbed him ‘Baby Dylan’. But they’re not the only ones. Whenever I hear New Jersey’s rockers, The Gaslight Anthem, I’m reminded of Bruce Springsteen—and, in fact, that association is not without basis: The Gaslight Anthem are quite heavily influenced by The Boss; they’ve opened for him; and he’s played with them. More recently, I heard Charles Bradley who is known as ‘The Screaming Eagle of Soul’ and at 64 has just one album (No Time For Dreaming) to his credit. Bradley has his own style of singing funk, soul and R&B tunes but you can also distinctively discern strong influences of two legends, the late James Brown and the late Otis Redding. Then I read that Bradley began his career as a James Brown mimicker on stage before he found his own groove.
As a compulsive hoarder of music, I have a confession to make. I often acquire albums and songs that I don’t get down to listening to. Not even once. Not even cursorily. Yes, it’s true and it does make me feel a bit silly. I mean I don’t display my music on racks and shelves as some hoarders of books do, ostensibly to impress visitors although they may not have read even a page of most of them. I can’t really do that, unless I offer people my iPods, hard drives and pen drives or a peek into the virtual cloud—places where most of the music I hoard are stored—but the fact is I do have countless albums and songs that I’ve never heard. I’ve downloaded them with all good intentions of listening to them but never got around to doing so. Read more
Every time I listen to Baba O’ Riley, The Who’s marvellous song off their Who’s Next album, I simply have to crank up the volume to as high as my ears can take. Always. Ever since I first heard that album in the early 1970s with its cheeky cover photograph of members of the band having just peed on a huge concrete piling, when Baba O’ Riley comes on, it just has to be full on—the highest volume level that I can manage. Attribute it to the violin solo on the song. Apparently, putting the violin solo into that Pete Townshend-composed song was the idea of the late Keith Moon, The Who’s pretty mad drummer. It was a great idea because that solo is brilliant and one that begs you to turn the volume knob or your iPod touch wheel or whatever works the loudness on the device that you get your fix on up high. Read more
You are unlikely to find a rock musician who works harder than Warren Haynes. The 51-year-old lead guitarist and singer works in three bands – Gov’t Mule, which he fronts, The Allman Brothers Band where he plays the lead guitar along with, Derek Trucks, his own solo projects, as well as occasional stints with Phil Lesh & Friends. How the man manages to do all of that for outfits that tour like maniacs – most of these bands mainly play live gigs (sometimes more than a 100 shows a year) and record very few studio albums – is a mystery. Yet Haynes, who was featured at No. 23 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, powers on, shuffling his dates between bands and, as he did recently, makes time to record studio albums as well. Read more
I don’t know why I went into a sudden R.E.M. phase a few weeks back but it could have to do with the fact that a colleague had acquired their new box set of re-mastered (with bonus and live tracks) versions of their first three albums—Murmur, Reckoning and Fables of Reconstruction. I dusted off my old R.E.M. studio albums, all 14 of them, and began listening to them after ages. Then I tried buying that box set but I still haven’t located a music shop that has it. Read more
Sometimes there comes along a week that you wish you could rewind and do it again in a better way. Last week was one of those. Stress, tension, unhappiness, frustration all rolled into one big bad week. It’s over now, thankfully but I’m still reeling from the collateral damage it wrought: for the greater part of last week I couldn’t find time to listen to music. Of course, there was enough stuff coming my direction—via RSS feeds, my online music store accounts and a host of mp3 blogs—but I just couldn’t get down to exploring them. Up until the very end of the week when my mood was suddenly and very pleasantly lifted by a donkey’s jawbone. Read more
The best supergroups—collaborations between already famous musicians—are often the ones that don’t last too long. Remember Blind Faith, which in the 1960s had heavyweights such as Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood and Ric Grech yet released just the one eponymous album? Or, what about The Traveling Wilburys, comprising Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty, who recorded just two albums? Read more
There aren’t too many radio disc jockeys that I am fond of. Much of the radio music that I listen to is by way of the internet — either streams off the web or podcasts of radio programmes from small and independent radio stations. And far too many of the DJs that I’ve encountered on such programmes talk way too much. Read more