With civic arts support low on American capitalism’s to-do list, orchestras and composers are canoodling more frequently with rock and pop acts — who of course have their own struggles, wringing pennies from streaming platforms et al. When the outcome isn’t just simpleminded hits-with-strings reheats or half-cooked vanity concertos, it’s a way for living artists to stretch “high culture” into useful new shapes.
The Order of Nature, recorded live in 2018, is a fairly lit collaboration between My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and hotshot conductor/composer Teddy Abrams, current Music Director of James’ hometown Louisville Orchestra. It’s full of knowing references to orchestral soul and pop; listen closely and you’ll hear flickers of Issac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Paul Robson, Aaron Copland, Nelson Riddle, Linda Ronstadt, Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan — all of whom belong in any definition of American orchestral music worth defending.
The spirit and sound here is a bit What’s Goin On and a bit “Nature Boy,” addressing timely issues —guns, civil unrest, newsfeed overload, delusional religion — and advocating for love over hate. It’s good to hear the grain of James’ voice minus its usual cloak of reverb; his writing’s passionate, and the orchestrations show smarts and wit. “Back To The End Of The World,” a thinly veiled flip of the standard “Blue Moon,” imagines “the dawn of a new golden age” while a “Good Vibrations” theremin moans the melody alongside strings, brass and choir. “Who Am I?” takes off of Wendy’s existential meditation from the 1950 musical Peter Pan, composed by pop-classical OG Leonard Bernstein and notably covered by Nina Simone, detouring into a riff on reincarnation.
Things build nicely. “Over and Over,” the choogling rocker from James’ 2018 Uniform Distortion, gets repurposed with jaunty orchestrations that conjure a Fourth of July Pops concert — you might imagine it set on a town square gazebo, like James’ weird whiteface performance of Dylan’s “Goin’ To Acapulco” in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There. Utilizing virtuosos at hand, there’s jazzy Hot Club of France style violin solo added for good measure. With “Same Old Lie,” an activist gospel-soul workout that has James nearly rapping, he makes a case for getting off your ass to vote, while the orchestra sweeps into a suitably grand finale. It doesn’t rock, per se, but it does soar.