by Rob van Alstyne
In the past My Morning Jacket’s music always seemed to be floating in the ether. It was a sound defined by the high end—the lonesome thickly reverb-coated wail of singer/guitarist Jim James, celestial warped keyboard passages, lithe guitar lines—rather than the low. All of that has changed with Z, the Louisville, Kentucky-based group’s fourth album, and the one in which the long-haired-foot-stomping-friendly-quartet finally connect fully with the soulful bottom end heretofore given short shrift on most of their tunes. The Neil Young meets Radiohead comparisons bandied about in regards to previous critically acclaimed albums like the sprawling At Dawn (2001) no longer apply—at least not without mentioning that they’ve thrown a little bit of Prince and D’Angelo into the mix.
the opening amniotic bass thump of “Wordless Chorus” it’s
clear that James and his reconfigured band—which, in addition to mainstays
Patrick Hallahan on drums and bassist Two Tone Tommy, now features new guitarist
Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster—have succumbed to the power of
groove and don’t plan on letting go anytime soon.
There’s always been a good bit of chunky soul in MMJ’s Americana
music stew—as anyone who’s heard their captivating, straight-ahead
take on Erykah Baduh’s “Call Tyrone” will readily attest—but
the boys sound downright giddy at letting this aspect of their sound come to
the fore on roughly one-third of Z. The vibe of the proceedings is polished;
the group recorded in a real studio with a bonafide producer—John Leckie
who’s had his hand in everything from George Harrison’s All Things
Must Pass to Radiohead’s The Bends—behind the boards
for the first time in their career. Musical concision was clearly the order
of the day. Z is two songs and a whopping 24 minutes lighter than its
predecessor, 2003’s major label debut It Still Moves, and with
the exception of rambling eight and a half-minute album closer “Dondante,”
this set of songs focuses on taut, austere arrangements set to more traditional
From the reggae-friendly party jam “Off the Record” to the album’s
lone misstep—the creepy carnival waltz “Into the Woods”—it’s
clear that My Morning Jacket approached the creation of Z without a safety
net. There’s plenty here to tie the band to their past records—the
joyous barroom crunch of “What A Wonderful Man” feels like the sequel
to “Just Because I Do,” and the acoustic swoon of “Knot Comes
Loose,” apart from its decidedly slicker sonic sheen, wouldn’t have
sounded out of place on the group’s debut album—but there are also
numerous bold steps into previously unexplored terrain.
The band didn’t really have a choice in the matter. The January 2004 exodus
of keyboardist Danny Cash and guitarist Johnny Quaid—both cited exhaustion
from the band’s kamikaze road warrior approach to touring—made re-creating
past efforts impossible anyway. Although the legions of new fans hardly noticed
the lineup shift as the group had just begun to gain national notoriety at the
time of the switch, longtime devotees were rightfully concerned. Quaid was much
more than a lead guitar player: in addition to being James’ cousin with
whom he founded the band in 1998, all the group’s previous albums had
been co-productions between James and Quaid, recorded in the Quaid family barn
on the outskirts of Louisville. His departure signaled a sea change at the heart
of MMJ’s musical operation.
was more than aware of the pressures he faced in filling the man’s shoes.
“I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself coming into the situation,”
recalls Broemel of his first foray on the road with the band. “Bo really
did, too. The guys in the band weren’t putting any pressure on us. It
was more me worrying about what the fans wanted to hear, what the show should
be like and how I wanted to approach it. It didn’t take long for that
to become second nature though. I love the old records and have no problem replicating
them. I have the utmost respect for the guys who left and the parts they played
both musically and personally in the development of the band.”
As anyone who saw the group’s May 2004 show at the Quest can attest, Broemel’s
ability to emulate Quaid—both in sound and appearance—was flat out
uncanny. All well and good—imitation may work when revisiting other peoples’
past glories—but the true test of MMJ’s mettle would come when it
came to creating new music without their founding members. Broemel acknowledges
the significant difference between being a hired gun for touring and a full-fledged
band member—a transition he claims took place gradually.
“It’s definitely a different thing now having been a part of making
one of the records,” claims Broemel, audibly excited about his first studio
moments with the band he’s been a part of for nearly two years. “My
relationship with the guys has evolved slowly and naturally. Jim James asked
us to come out and do the tours and then we were just going to take it from
there—there was no real commitment made in terms of a future beyond that.
We just took the approach of building a relationship slow and steady and eventually
we were at the point that it was only natural to be rehearsing as a band and
working on the new record together. It took us about 18 months to get to that
point—it definitely wasn’t a decision the other guys made lightly.”
one can accuse the original members of poor judgment: Broemel acquits himself
as a solid complement on the axe to James throughout Z, producing some
highly memorable six string moments with the buoyantly ragged licks found in
“Anytime” and soaring sparring with James during the outro of “Lay
Low.” My Morning Jacket have come a long way since the days of playing
in front of a dozen people at the 7th St. Entry just three and a half years
ago when Jim James still held a day job at Subway, and it appears their future
with new member Broemel is more than secure.
The group may currently be seen making cameos in a Cameron Crowe film, the universally-panned
“Elizabethtown,” and with their names on the cover of Rolling Stone—but
the focus remains squarely on one thing, the music. “Things like the big
press and the Cameron Crowe movie don’t really feel like a big deal,”
says Broemel. “We’re more just happy that people come see the band
and we get to have a great time playing to a room full of people singing along.
I get excited about seeing that kid in the front row who’s just totally
freaking out—not about having friends call and tell us about what Entertainment
Weekly said about us or whatever. The music itself remains the coolest thing
about being in a band like My Morning Jacket.” ||
My Morning Jacket plays on Sat., Oct. 29 at the Quest Club with Kathleen
Edwards. 6 p.m. $18. All Ages. 110 N. 5th St., Mpls.
For further information visit the band’s official
website at MyMorningJacket.com.
While you’re there, listen to streams of their songs “Wordless Chorus”
and “Off the Record.”