Thursday, June 2, 2011

First Impressions: Circuital by My Morning Jacket

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There’s a scene in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous in which Stillwater (the fictional band a young journalist modeled on Crowe is following) takes to the stage. The lights are down, the crowd is roaring, the drummer thunders into the opening beat as spotlights flash. Then the band breaks in, the lights flash and the crowd goes berserk. It’s cheesy, clichéd – and perfectly captures the vibe of a good live show, that mix of drama, showmanship and fellowship that can make a concert a transcendent experience.

My Morning Jacket understands this vibe. Just listen to “Victory Dance,” the opening track on their new release, and tell me you can’t imagine this song opening a show. It starts with a gong for God’s sake! And this is followed by a guitar bit that sounds like trumpets at Jericho, as a Fender Rhodes creates a restrained dramatic drone under Jim James (singing in a lower register than the falsetto featured so prominently – and too often – on Evil Urges, their last outing).

If the use of the gong doesn’t give it away, this is album is heavy with 1970s rock references, with an occasional nod to later musical stylings (such as in the Edge-like echoing guitar work in the middle of the title track). The pretty acoustic ballad “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” sounds like the love child of George Harrison’s “Something” and Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight.” “Slow Slow Tune” has a similar feel, and there are two beautiful uplifting rockers in the middle of the album: “First Light” with a heavy distorted bass sound underneath, and “You Wanna Freak Out” with a climbing acoustic guitar opening and crystal clear vocals from James (whose voice is beautifully produced on this album). “Circuital” doesn’t grab me at first. It starts a simple muted guitar bit that’s just low-key and not melodic enough to carry the tune. But it slowly picks up steam as the rest of the band joins in, with an uplifting acoustic guitar strummed up in the mix. And it’s really going by the middle.

The only misstep is the oddball “Holdin On to Black Metal,” which sounds like something from another project (if not another band) for most of its length. The only My Morning Jacket moment comes with at 2:47 with a classic sax/guitar/keyboard/horn breakdown. I’m not sure what they were trying to accomplish here – on the documentary accompanying the iTunes version, Jim James actually says it was originally a joke – but whatever it is, they missed the mark.

This album may have more staying power than Evil Urges. That album made my Best Albums of the Oughties list (assembled a year after the album’s release), but I found that it slowly lost its charms. There are too many sludgy and forced funk experiments. If you’re looking for brand-new, groundbreaking music (if that’s even possible anymore), then look elsewhere. If you like majestic, well written rock music meant for big spaces, then you’ll like this record.

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