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My Morning Jacket - Evil Urges Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 July 2008
ImageThough the canon of great singer-songwriters is littered with examples of artists who don’t possess traditionally attractive voices, it’s possible there’s no element in songwriter’s craft that’s more important than voice. Like an actor’s face or an orator’s dramatic flourishes, a songwriter’s voice – whether commanding like Aretha Franklin or squeaky like Daniel Johnston – is the quickest identifier of his or her work, the purest and most expressive instrument, and the one that will shape much of your impression of the persona that artist has created. As such, to change that creative signature is daring, if not dangerous, something that becomes obvious the first time you hear Dylan’s nasally pinched croon on 1969’s Nashville Skyline or Neil Young’s vocoder-aided robo-voice on 1982’s Trans – two albums where the songwriter’s familiar vocal fingerprints were so obscured that listeners were left trying to figure out if they’d mistakenly purchased the wrong album. To change one’s voice is to adopt a different character altogether, accepting in good faith that your listeners will still want to spend time with this new individual. With Evil Urges, Jim James wants to reintroduce himself.

Having inched out into more experimental waters with 2005’s Z, an album that added shades of reggae and Caribbean pop to My Morning Jacket’s more conventional Southern-tinged reverb rock, the Kentucky quintet has earned the right to make an album like Evil Urges. Building on the subtle eclecticism of their past releases as well as their spate of orchestral performances, one gets the impression that they’ve been champing at the bit to make an album that brings together the full extent of their country, folk and R&B influences into one genre-defying set. As James reportedly spent much of the past few years studying gospel, funk and soul music, it’s no surprise that those influences provide the starkest contrast with the band’s previous work. Largely, he accomplishes this transformation through exploring the higher registers of his voice. Always known for possessing a deeply emotive and elastic voice, able to soar over walls of guitar interplay or coo over delicate ballads, here James wields an entirely different instrument. With his swooning falsetto bringing to mind Smokey Robinson on the opening title track, itself a mix of early ‘70s orchestral soul, space rock and twin guitar Southern rock, James wastes no time drawing a line between this release and their previous four studio releases. From there, he branches out into synth pop on “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Part 1” and the country soul of “Look At You.” There are forays into string-laden yacht rock (“Thank You Too!”), pedal steel-drenched ‘70s country-pop (“Sec Walkin’) and ‘50s-tinged power pop (“Two Halves”). Then there’s the remarkably direct acoustic ballad “Librarian”, that brings together themes of vanity and modesty under the metaphor of the sexy intellectual, a track that adds a fragile honesty to an album that deals mostly in shadow and suggestion. Still, some experiments were better left in the laboratory.

Any momentum the album accrues comes to a halt with “Highly Suspicious,” one of the most audacious and confusing trifles that a serious rock band has ever endeavored to foist upon their fans. Three minutes of grunting bass synth lines, falsetto shrieks, flailing guitar solos and bizarre laughter, it brings to the surface the shades of Prince that hang around the edges of the album, but never becomes anything more than misguided novelty. Even Prince was never bold enough to write a song that repeats the words “peanut butter pudding surprise” three times, and James is rendered unrecognizable, his voice a preening and silly caricature of an evil cartoon imp. Even worse, the band makes no attempt to hide the track, stunningly placing it in the third slot where it sucks all of the oxygen out of an album that hasn’t prepared you for such a jarring change of pace. In short, the song would possibly work as a half-serious B-side or a website exclusive that fans could trade for laughs, but slated so early in the album it threatens to unfairly color the whole work as a misguided experiment. The fact is, the rest of the album isn’t really that daring at all.

As one might expect, there’s a dual lead guitar solo workout in “I’m Amazed,” a harmony-filled anthem that restores some of the reverb that is noticeably absent in the mix, with James using his everyman persona to throw questions at a confusing world. As one of the best hooks, it’s one of the few moments on the album that clearly evokes the old My Morning Jacket marriage of ethereal guitar lines with transcendent vocals. Less interesting is “Aluminum Park,” a rousing sing-along that borrows from Bruce Springsteen in providing a crowd-pleasing hook that pulses with a driving piano line and a sweaty, life-affirming chorus. And while James has made a reputation of creating memorable guitar riffs, he runs out of track on “Remnants,” a by-the-numbers power chord collage that is more Lenny Kravitz than Led Zeppelin.

Ultimately, Evil Urges seems destined to be known as My Morning Jacket’s oddball album, a set of brushstrokes that create a confusingly jumbled portrait of a band that isn’t entirely sure what they want to do. But despite the album’s obvious eclecticism and occasional eccentric detour, it’s not the kind of release that should be so polarizing. To be sure, it sounds little like previous My Morning Jacket releases, but there was little sense in their belaboring the point that they can play extended guitar solos and create clouds of reverb. What they’ve done here might lack focus but it’s certainly not short on vision, and the craftsmanship – from the orchestral flourishes to the richly layered arrangements – prove that there is a greater design to the album’s construction. It might not be familiar, but just like before, James’ voice will guide you through the journey.

Unlike most My Morning Jacket albums, Evil Urges has very little reverb in the mix. The result is a release that is their most crisp and clear, with the guitar breakdowns snapping with a focused intensity and James’ vocals sounding more tangibly near. That said, much of the transcendent mystery surrounding his vocal performances is gone, revealing the limitations of what had previously been a very adaptable instrument. Arguably, their more lo-fi production techniques suit them better, as the clean and polished textures remove a bit of the edge that they need to produce just a little transcendent haze. Even so, this is probably the first My Morning Jacket album that will reward the investment of high-end equipment, as the careful and detailed arrangements could be lost on cheaper stereos.

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