Monday, June 09, 2008

Split Personality

My Morning Jacket - Evil Urges (Atco/Rough Trade, 2008)

The last we heard from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James came in the form of a cameo appearance in Todd Haynes’ idiosyncratic Bob Dylan biopic ‘I’m Not There’. His beautiful rendition of ‘Goin’ To Acapalco’, full of aching and longing, hardly prepares us for this, the next instalment in his band’s increasingly unpredictable journey.

‘Evil Urges’ has divided opinion on a band where a strong consensus used to prevail. It is a much cleaner sounding record – much of the dirtiness of their southern rock template has been abandoned in favour of something raunchier and, well, funkier. The main concern here seems to be the pleasures of the flesh (elucidated quite brilliantly by the title track), and the album reminds me of Beck’s Prince-inspired escapades on ‘Midnight Vultures’.

Whilst Beck’s album was irreverent and full of pastiche, there’s a much greater sense that James wants this My Morning Jacket album to be taken as a serious artistic statement (albeit one with a real sense of humour). Their last album ‘Z’ leaned heavier on keyboards and grooves, but a good portion of ‘Evil Urges’ sounds even further removed from their patented sound.

Whilst the band has never been without a sensitive side, there has usually been a dominant tendency to crank up the volume and exhibit an abiding faith in the power of rock. What is most striking about ‘Evil Urges’ is its relative calm, even in its lurches into funk. Perhaps the best example of this is ‘Thank You Too!’, a honey-drenched golden pop moment, but the change is also stark on ‘Sec Walkin’, a song which could easily have appeared on ‘At Dawn’ were it not for the radically altered production values. The synth pads, although kept in the background, completely change the texture of the group’s sound, and the muffled drum sound is some distance from the powerhouse performances to which we’ve become accustomed.

Fans hankering after that gloriously excessive reverb-drenched vocal will be particularly disappointed. James seems to have tried very self-consciously to disguise his voice throughout much of ‘Evil Urges’, frequently adopting a strained falsetto or deliberately controlling his more emotive tendencies. It’s easy to see why he has chosen this tactic given the success of his legion of imitators. With the likes of Band of Horses and Fleet Foxes muscling in on the My Morning Jacket sound, it was probably time to try something new, or at least to try and prove MMJ to be more versatile than their followers.

Sometimes it works brilliantly. The title track is slinky and seductive, whilst retaining some of the more muscular flourishes that characterised earlier albums. ‘Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Part 1’ is more slippery – almost whispery or tentative in its restraint. It’s resolutely not what people will expect from this band but it works in its own peculiar and surprising way.

Elsewhere, there are some embarrassing errors. The lumbering, harmonically limited funk of ‘Highly Suspicious’ is risible. Some pretty clumsy lyrics help make ‘I’m Amazed’ a somewhat average halfway house between the band as they sound now and as they sounded circa ‘It Still Moves’.

Sometimes James’ attempts to inject some soul or pop shimmer into these songs results in some spectacularly cheesy melodies. I can’t quite resist the hints at 60s pop that creep into ‘Two Halves’, but others will probably find it clichéd and insincere. A few more tracks with the subtlety and control of ‘Touch Me…’ would have been greatly appreciated.

I also have the sense that the lyrics often don’t help matters much here. On ‘Librarian’, James finds attraction in that most curiously sexless of stereotypes but even a cursory look at Cascada’s ghastly videos will suggest that the notion that libraries might be hotbeds of sexual adventure is hardly a new idea. His tentative steps into spiritual and political concerns on ‘Remnants’ also seem a little clumsy.

It’s strange that My Morning Jacket sound more like a band in transition here than they did on ‘Z’. That record was far more successful (and more concise) in integrating unexpected influences (soul, funk, ska) into their trademark sound. Here they sound halfway between a mainstream refinement of their template and a complete repudiation of it.

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