My Morning Jacket
It Still Moves
ntil now, converts to the My Morning Jacket camp likely would claim to have first fallen for the Louisville band’s spectral Southern rock by way of its two Darla-released full-lengths, Tennessee Fire and At Dawn, a pair of lo-fi indie gems that married true-blue country and classic pop pathos to the otherworldly croon of reverb-drenched lead singer Jim James.
Self-believing acolytes who went to see MMJ in concert expecting to wallow in boozy backwoods heartache were in for a shock somewhat akin to seeing Iron and Wine’s Samuel Beam doing AC/DC covers, his trademark Grizzy Adams beard replaced with an elegantly-coiffed mullet.
Indeed, the live Jacket is all about swirling hair and Flying Vs, an unholy alliance between the earth-bound stomp of Crazy Horse and the transcendent reach of prime Skynyrd. A casual observer might almost mistake them for a jam band, if not for their sure-footed hold on country-rock essentialism.
So when it was announced back in September of 2002 that My Morning Jacket had signed with ATO records, a Dave Matthews-backed arm of major RCA, it was clear that something had to give.
Unsurprisingly, the bottom-of-a-well production values of Tennesssee Fire and At Dawn have gone by the wayside for the band’s major-label debut, It Still Moves, replaced by soaring guitars, swelling strings, and even a few hot buttered horns, courtesy of the Stax-approved Memphis Horns.
The murkiest track on It Still Moves might sound a hundred times more pristine than the band’s previously best-produced efforts, but the real concern shouldn’t be about preserving mountains of tape hiss so much as ensuring that none of MMJ’s old-soul magic gets lost in the translation.
Thankfully, James’ voice is still the focal point, only now it’s underpinned with a far more formidable groove. The album’s opener, “Mahgeetah,” wastes no time breaking out into full gallop right out of the gate, while proudly maintaining the now-legendary James-ian tradition of being both chill-inducingly evocative and lyrically incomprehensible, a delicate feat largely unseen in the speaking-in-tongues South since Michael Stipe wrapped his inchoate syllables around R.E.M.’s then-nascent college pop.
While James’ serpentine Southern drawl is certainly no less inscrutable than ever, It Still Moves does find the band largely abandoning its more countrified influences while uncovering some heretofore well-hidden allegiances to classic rock.
“Dance Floors” and “One Big Holiday” channel the cocksure swagger and white-boy soul of the Stones and the Allman Brothers, while “Golden” sounds like Zeppelin’s “That’s the Way” if Robert Plant was a veteran barfly holding court at some nameless dive in northwest Kentucky.
However, it’s on the nine-minute slow-burner “I Will Sing You Songs” that My Morning Jacket’s self-mythology shoots for the stratosphere. A deliberate intro draped in psychedelic gauze gives way to a world-weary guitar figure made all the more desperate by James’ haunted wail. His wounded, whispered delivery of the line “just don’t make it last any longer than it has to” conveys a punch-drunk intimacy that perfectly anticipates the brave-faced runs of the bridge, and yet from these humble-seeming elements the band manages to reconfigure sadness and heartbreak on an epic scale.
After the brazenly tossed-off honky-tonk and muscular horns of “Easy Morning Rebel,” things really get interesting on “Run Thru,” which starts off telegraphing Zep’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” then stops on a dime mid-song before launching into quintessential late-60s Pink Floyd freakout mode, with guitars dropping bombs and laser effects set to stun.
And then just like that, MMJ abandons the cock-rock redux for a pair of blissful golden era pop beauties, “Rollin’ Back” and “Just One Thing,” Spectoresque gems of such transcendent lushness that no Kentucky farm boys should ever be able to approach, and yet James manages to reinvent himself once again, this time as a star-crossed studio idol trapped inside his pristine pop prison, wringing every ounce of longing and foolish hope out of these spotless set pieces, trying to sing his way out and into heaven.
Now that My Morning Jacket has gotten its major label wings, you can’t blame the band for wanting to take every opportunity to soar. However, while the previous two MMJ albums were able to take you to another place and hit you where you live at the same time, It Still Moves never seems to take its head out of the clouds. Chalk that up to the increased production values and beefed-up bankroll if you will, but I still can’t help but miss the immediacy of “Evelyn is not Real,” the nakedness of “Hopefully,” or the irreverence of “Phone Went West.”
However, that’s a minor complaint better left for indie purists, jilted diehards and needless nostalgists (and I acknowledge I might be all three, which is why I won’t overstate the case). Clearly, My Morning Jacket has come into its own here, transcending underground fetishizing to become the kind of band that can make jaws drop and tears fall anywhere it damn well pleases. Now that a southern rock revival seems to have begun in earnest, it’s reassuring to have a band like My Morning Jacket at the forefront, showing the young’uns how it’s done.
In other words, Kings of Leon may have cornered the youth market, but this is the real young manhood.