Rated | Alphabetical
| Highest Rated 2006
My Morning Jacket: Z
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,
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
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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