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Still Moving

 

My Morning Jacket: Z

ATO/RCA, 2005

Rating: 4.4

 

Posted: October 28, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

It isn't every band that garners comparisons to both Lynyrd Skynyrd and Radiohead, but then My Morning Jacket isn't every band. As is the case with 99.9% of all such comparisons, of course, those reference points are inadequate at best, completely random and irrelevant at worst. Yes, there are a heaping helping of Southern influences leaving their fingerprints on the Kentucky-based band's sound, but the group's major-label debut, 2003's It Still Moves, should have silenced such facile analogies forever. Loud guitars and twangy vocals don't make you the next .38 Special any more than a penchant for experimentation makes you the next Thom Yorke.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Z, the band's fourth album, runs over those and any other mile markers that unimaginative critics might grasp for in describing its bold, expansive approach. Z is the most transitional of transitional albums: It's the first record to bring in an outside producer (John Leckie, who helmed Radiohead's The Bends, shares knob-twirling duties with MMJ frontman Jim James); the first recorded with two new members; and the first since the group abandoned the silo that has long served as its rehearsal space. Paradoxically, it is (at least so far) the band's definitive recording. Yes, it may not hew faithfully to past MMJ records, but its wide-open range perfectly exemplifies the group's adventurous spirit.

The aptly titled opener "Wordless Chorus" sets the tone not with a bold, defiant anthem but with a bold, defiant bed of low-key burbles and James' dialed-down vocals, which float unassumingly into a chorus that's both soaring and understated. Even when he sings that "We are the innovators / They are the imitators," it sounds less like a boast than it does a simple statement of the obvious -- a statement soon verified as he swoops into a series of soulful yelps that evoke Prince thrusting himself through a cover of Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets."

The first half of Z speeds by in an ecstasy-trip rush, accented by the spiraling guitar figure and subdued power chord bursts of "Gideon," the exuberantly sloppy garage-pop of "What A Wonderful Man" and the faint reggae lilt of the shining singalong "Off The Record," which fishtails briefly into guitar-workout territory toward the end.

And then James and his cohorts begin spending the capital they've just earned. "Into the Woods" aggressively pokes -- hard -- at the complacency its muted tone invites. Its slow, waltz-time jig, calliope sounds and stately choir give off a faint whiff of Halloween camp, but weave an elegant tapestry against which James employs lyrical snippets about kittens on fire and babies in blenders (accompanied, a little too obviously, by explanatory sound effects) to heighten the sense of unreality (favorite line: "A good showerhead / And my right hand / The two best lovers / That I ever had").

The rollicking "Anytime" and "Lay Low" slide into Z more familiar territory, setting the stage for the atmospheric '70s album-rock vibe that pervades the rest of the second half. The former's assured piano-and-guitar interplay offers a rocking four-minute palette-cleanser before drifting into the latter's peaceful, easygoing gait. The affecting piano ballad "Knot Comes Loose" provides one of the prettier moments in MMJ's catalog before leading into the closing "Dondante," an atmospheric ode to a dead friend that eases the listener out of the record as gently as "Wordless Chorus" did forty minutes earlier.

Still, the album's song-by-song topography isn't as important as the larger impression it leaves. Z alights briefly in patches of ethereal Neil Young folk, Crazy Horse stomp, muscular soul, finger-picked guitar shadings and gauzy wisps of shoegazing indie-rock. But between the exploratory tweaking of recognizable templates that mark its first half and the confident chops of its second, it coalesces into a hypnotic and often enthralling entity all its own. Whether it's an indicator of Jacket excursions to come remains to be seen, but even if Z is a detour, it's one well worth taking.

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 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
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