Traveling through a band’s discography in order can be a very rewarding experience. Watching Radiohead transform themselves from an ambitious if conventional rock band on Pablo Honey and The Bends to the pioneers of electro-rock/ambient fusion on Kid A and OK Computer to the culmination of all of their individual sounds on In Rainbows is a sonic treat. Similarly, one can trace the Beatles’ journey from teeny-bopping pop artists to bluesy and soulful rockers to the kings of psychedelia and beyond will re-affirm everything you’ve ever heard about the Beatles being the greatest band of all time. Listening to an artist for the first time late in their career, however, presents a veritable slate of critical conundrums. While you aren’t constantly comparing a particular album to your favorite sound of a group (for example faulting Neon Bible for not sounding enough like Funeral as many hipsters have), you also don’t know where to place the album in this band’s continuity and there’s no way to tell how the band has matured or if they’ve simply stalled. My Morning Jacket is one of the most legendary of modern indie rock outfits (a reputation that was cemented by an epic four hour set at Bonnaroo in 2008), and their live shows have been called life-chaning. Yet, I’ve never listened to one of their albums before, and my formal introduction to the group is their 2011 LP, Circuital, a fun and exciting mix of alt-country, psychedelia, and straight classic rock that rarely left me bored even though there were few if any stand-out singles on the album.
Fronted by lead guitarist and vocalist Jim James, My Morning Jacket join The Decemberists as one of the most prominent indie outfits trying to bring the sexy back to country music though where The Decemberists adopted a southern roots rock sound heavily influenced by bluegrass and country folk, My Morning Jacket plays their country surprisingly straight but tempers it with a healthy appreciation for the classic rock guitar riffs of yore, gorgeous and entrancing ambient landscapes, and the haunting falsetto of vocalist Jim James who sounds like a combination of Roger Daltrey of The Who and Andy Partridge of XTC. Few modern acts can pull of the intentional hippie comparisons thrown at My Morning Jacket and still maintain any sort of cred as contemporary indie rockers, yet Circuital quietly dispels any notions of being too inherently retro with a sound that encompasses the best of the psychedelic tranquility (and love of traditional country music) of The Grateful Dead with the pounding piano interludes and proto-punk guitar riffs of The Who all with the modern technical flourishes and sonic detail that shines through on the best modern rock. They are a decidedly retro band that are as much Neil Young as any modern relatives, but there’s so much quiet passion and talent in this album that you just won’t care that there isn’t much that is startlingly new or original.
From the opening horns of “Victory Dance” (which while fun, almost seem intentionally comical and over-the-top), you know you’re in for a different type of album, and My Morning Jacket doesn’t disappoint. “Victory Dance” remains one of the stronger tracks on the LP and the way it slowly builds up from a bluesy beginning (reminiscent of “House of the Rising Sun” or early Led Zeppelin) to the hectic and propulsive final minutes, it delivers a track that grows on you with each consecutive listen. The stand-out track of the album is also the most experimental and uncharacteristic of the rest of the album. “Holding on to Black Metal” features a jazzy and soulful blast of horns throughout the whole track, a gorgeous female chorus, and a general vibe that perfectly captures the neo-beatnik image this band projects. In “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)”, Jim James memorable voice is layered over a slow-moving country ballad buffeted along by exquisite violin work and some subtle but appreciated manipulation of James’ vocals to add an ethereal quality to the track. “Wonderful” is the kind of My Morning Jacket track you could play for your parents and trick them into becoming indie rock fans. On “Outta My System,” Jim James even shows some of the bands’ humor with the great opening line “They told me not to smoke drugs, but i wouldn’t listen/ Never thought I’d get caught and wind up in prison” over a simple but catchy guitar riff that instantly evokes images of “Happy Jack.”
This was simply a fun album. Unfortunately, outside of “Holding on to Black Metal” and perhaps “Victory Dance,” there were very few stand-out tracks. Nothing sounded bad, and even when the title track “Circuital” ran on for a good 7 minutes, the album never left you fidgeting in your seat waiting for something to happen. Instead, the album just flowed together so well that you’ll be forgiven when it passed out of your system after the listen is over. From what I’ve read of this band, much like Dave Mattews, My Morning Jacket is defined by their live shows more than their studio records, and while I certainly never found myself regretting a lack of spirit on the album, I would still relish the opportunity to see what all the hype is about for their live concerts. The Bonnaroo concert I mentioned early has become the stuff of indie rock legend. All in all though, for fans of alt-country acts like Wilco or classic rock (specifically The Who and Led Zeppelin whose influence is loudest), this is a must-listen album.
Final Score: B+