Today, more than ten years in on an acclaimed career, it should be remembered that My Morning Jacket hit the ground running right out of the gate and have never really stopped. Lauded as a band to watch when they emerged from the Louisville music scene at the dawn of the new millennium, they approached every aspect of the rock and roll adventure with exuberance and passion. Their commitment to the quality of their records, to the impact of their live shows, and to maintaining the connection to their indie roots has never wavered.
My Morning Jacket has also been about evolution. One only has to go back to their early demos and see the wide scope of influences that Jim James was bringing to the table. While the first few MMJ albums displayed a Neil Young influence, their earliest demos, which featured early 80s synth pop covers mixed in with classic Hank Wiliams, should have told people that trying to define MMJ would never be simple.
Though My Morning Jacket is a band, and a strong one at that, its leader and driving force is Jim James. His prolific well of ideas never seems to run dry much like another great Louisville artist, Will Oldham. Almost as soon as James got My Morning Jacket established, he was working with other artists - collaborating, guesting, producing - you name it. This almost frenzied appetite for creativity often spilled over into MMJ's own records, most obviously their last studio album, Evil Urges, which combined nearly all of James's influences sounding at times like a lovingly crafted mix tape.
Considering the scope of their previous album, Circuital provides the perfect counterpoint as it is their most focused and complete album. Recorded in an old high school gym in Louisville during the summer heat, the band set up and recorded live to tape with Tucker Martine (Tift Merritt) in the producer's chair. Although the process makes for a great story, it also served an important purpose on Circuital by allowing the strength of MMJ as a band unit to become the focus. James recently explained the state of MMJ:
We just feel, as a band, very calm right now, very peaceful. I don't want to say it's a reaction against the modern way of life and the speed of technology and stuff, but in some ways it is. I feel like we just wanted to make a record that was concise but patient within itself — not in a hurry to go anywhere.
For all that MMJ has done over their career and all the band members that have come and gone over the years, it's easy to forget that their current lineup has been together longer than any other previous one. However, they've only made two studio records together before Circuital. Z was done with famed British producer John Leckie (Stone Roses, Radiohead) and recorded in upstate NY soon after the current lineup was formed. That album established MMJ as more than country rockers in the Neil Young mold, setting in motion the parallel journeys of James and his side projects leading to the wide ranging sounds of Evil Urges which was the studio album that followed Z.
In choosing the knowing title of Circuital and its title track, James speaks of "ending up in the same place where you started out... [which] makes a lot of sense for this album." The journey of James and MMJ has been significant and their experiences and experience shows here. James's love and passion for music has never wavered. By pulling things in and focusing on the band's sound and performance, Circuital provides the effect of going to a great rock show. It demands to be listened to from beginning to end since the sequencing is so strong.
The album comes out strong ("Victory Dance" and the title track), slows things down so that everyone can catch their breath ("The Day Is Coming" and "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)") before kicking back in ("Outta My System" "Holdin' On To Black Metal" "First Light" "You Wanna Freak Out"). The album ends on two quiet notes ("Slow Slow Tune" and "Movin' Away") bringing to mind an image of rock club at 2am as the band exits the stage for the final time, leaving an audience exhausted, but satisfied.
The success of Circuital as a strong thematic and whole artistic statement reflects James's love for the album which is being lost in this iTunes era. In a recent interview, he explained:
I'm just such a fan of an album, you know? I feel like releasing one song at a time and all that — for me the world's going to split it all up into tracks anyway. People are going to buy it on iTunes. I'm not going to say I'm opposed to that. I just like the idea of things being in chunks.
Without alienating his youthful fans, James is trying to teach them something on Circuital. Let's hope they listen. Like the saying goes - life is a journey, not a destination. James stands today extremely aware of his life's journey and what it has brought to him. "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)" resonates as a testament to James's belief that only the things that you work to achieve will ever matter:
It matters to me
Took a long time to get here
If it would have been easy
I would not have cared
With a renewed sense of purpose, a strong producing partner in Tucker Martine, and a sense of reflection and understanding of their path so far, My Morning Jacket seems poised for another strong decade of work. Circuital shows that coming back home doesn't mean recycling old ideas. In their case, it mean refueling at a familiar station and looking at the road ahead.
- Jim Markel
EXPLORE FURTHER INTO SWAMPLAND...
(Our hub page for all our Kentucky-related stories)
Review of Tift Merritt: See You On The Moon
(produced by Tucker Martine)
Review of Bonnie "Prince" Billy: Lie Down In The Light
(the alter ego of Will Oldham)
Review of Antietam: Tenth Life
(Another fine Louisville band)