The Tennessee Fire (Darla, 1999)
At Dawn (Darla, 2001)
It Still Moves (ATO Records, 2003)
Z (ATO Records, 2005)
Okonos (ATO Records, 2006)
Evil Urges (ATO Records, 2008)
My Morning Jacket have helped redefine concept of the Great American Band. When the group first got together in 1998, that meant recording Kentucky-fried, blues-tinged country so farm-fresh, they recorded their vocals in a grain silo. But since then, shaggy frontman Jim James and his crew have dramatically expanded their sound, spiking their rawboned riffs with future-shock electronics. In doing so, they've come to represent a younger, weirder America — a headphones-bedecked nation as moved by Lynyrd Skynyrd as it is by Prince. Grooving on funk basslines, doo-wop harmonies, electronic pop, and plenty of futuristic experimentation, they've spent their career making a convincing argument that it's all just rock & roll.
Progress wasn't always so important to My Morning Jacket: On their first two albums, they only wanted to be old-timey Southern gentlemen. They recorded their debut, 1999's The Tennessee Fire, on a four-track, awhile their label, Darla Records, insisted that the album was "the real deal"— not a contemporary alterative country album, but a classic so time-worn, it could've been made by George Jones, Glenn Campbell, or Johnny Cash during the Seventies. True, lap-steel and harmonica brought out the twang in these songs, which found James toeing the Mason-Dixon line, singing about Butch Cassidy, bear attacks, and road trips from Nashville to Kentucky. But MMJ still sounded like a regular old indie-rock band — especially with the lo-fi production, soaked in reverb, and sore-throat harmonies, which recalled fellow Louisvillian Will Oldham.
It wasn't until 2001's At Dawn that their jones for classic rock began in earnest: "Honest Man" and "Death Is My Sleazy Play" recalled Stevie Ray Vaughn and Neil Young, respectively. But James' chillingly high-lonesome falsetto also became a touchstone in its own right. "Why does my mind blow to bits every time they play that song?" he sang. "It's just the way that he sings, not the words that he says." Right there, he'd summed up the album's whole appeal: The way he sang was so raw and earnest, he sounded like the type of guy who'd yell "Freebird" and mean it.
Dave Matthews soon signed MMJ to his ATO Records, and the group's release for the label, It Still Moves, was a bid to make a true "band album"— with the players acting as a full-fledged Crazy Horse to James' Neil Young. And they were the consummate bar band, swaggering out the whiskey blues on "Dancefloor," dipping into Memphis brass at the end of "Easy Morning Rebel," losing themselves in an extended multi-part jam on "Run Thru." Between the sing-along songs and the band's technique, there was plenty to make you raise your PBR in approval.
But MMJ's biggest creative leap came with 2005's Z, widely believed to be the album that transformed the band from hillbilly hipsters into the hippie Radiohead. From the gorgeous surf harmonies and glowing rollerskating-rink pop of "Wordless Chorus," to the deep ska grooves of "Off the Record," which morphed into an ominous keyboard outro that recalled Air, it was an epic, shambolic album that reinvented their varied influences as grandly-waving freak flags. "We are the innovators / They are the imitators," James wailed, and it was true: Able to sing soulfully about flammable kittens and babies in blenders, he was truly one of a kind.
James channeled his inner weirdo just as boldly on 2006's double-disc Okonokos. A set from San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium, it proved MMJ were not only the best contemporary live band, they were also commercial enough for Superbowl Halftime potential. Mixing Pink Floyd other-worldliness and jam-band populism, James played the goofball, venturing into spacey ambience, and howling his furry head off. He was breaking all the rules of straight-faced Southern-rock heroics and making up new ones as he went along.
If James enjoyed playing the radical, he really got to revel in that role on 2008's Evil Urges. In a year when folkie, harmony-laden acts like Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver were giving MMJ its biggest competition, the band were zagging in the other direction — in all other directions, actually. Their deeply ambitious album began with a few curveballs, including Prince-like vocal gasps, robotic swamp-funk, and nonsense outbursts like "peanut butter pudding surprise!" But soon, the band was donning its famous denim-jacket warmth, rolling into the AM Gold sunrise of "Thank You" and the barn-dance country of "Sec Walkin," but still tinkering with egghead electronics until these classic styles felt completely of-the-moment. What turned this genre-hopscotch into a fully-realized work was James' ability to make golden oldies seem modern. He joked about his obsession with the future throughout Evil Urges, teasing about "the Interwebs" and hinting that he had evolved to something past being human. But in his heart, he was always doing something charmingly old-fashioned: Making an album that was meant to be played and loved from beginning to end.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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