In Brief: Enjoyable, as long as you don’t mind a little lyrical goofiness and a lot of obsession with retro musical styles.
So, is anyone up for another trip back in time to the 70’s? My Morning Jacket sure hopes that you are. This band, which has been previously renowned for their blend of psychedelic and Southern-inflected indie rock sounds, has turned a decidedly retro corner on their latest disc (at least, judging from the reactions of fans who are familiar with their past material, which I haven’t checked out yet). This results in occasional forays into funk and disco, the occasional folk or country-type song steeped in the gushy melodies of 70’s-era soft rock, and a few surprisingly straightforward, lush pop songs. The change in style is probably enough to test the patience of any hipster who was previously infatuated with the band, but as far as I can tell, finding coolness in the uncool appears to be something that MMJ has a knack for. Even at its meekest and most syrupy falsetto moments, I can’t help but find some delicious musical bit to hold onto.
If my gushing about the reprisal of a musical era that hit its peak right around when I was born sounds familiar, it’s because I had similar things to say about the rootsier variant of this 70’s soft rock sound exhibited by Fleet Foxes on their debut album. The comparison of the two bands is no fluke – MMJ preceded the Foxes by many years, and that resulted in a lot of people commenting on the two bands’ similarities when the Foxes hit the scene last year. MMJ’s latest album, Evil Urges, was already upon us by then, and it was in discussing my likes and dislikes of this album with friends that I was led to check out Fleet Foxes (another story already told in another review). I suppose I ended up liking the student better than the teacher in this case, but nevertheless, I’ve found a lot about Evil Urges that seems unapologetically kind and generous on the surface without sacrificing a keen ear for musicality and detail, and therefore a lot that is worth returning to.
You might expect something a lot more sinister from an album caled Evil Urges than a set of lush soft rock songs that go down smooth as Jim James croons about things like romance and social justice and aging and the need to be connected to his fellow human beings. The trick here seems to be that the album is about things that seem evil, but aren’t. Just as it touches on musical styles thought to be passe by most of the general public, it appears to want to shed light on long-held cultural taboos – maybe not mortal sins, but just things that we don’t like to talk about – that, in truth, really aren’t harming anybody. That’s only a vague attempt to sum up what might not even be an intentional theme running throughout the record – the constant jumping from one style to the next can make Evil Urges feel disjointed ahead of time, as if there wasn’t any sort of bigger meaning or agenda attached to it, and it’s just what the band felt was their best output from their latest sessions. That can be debated, I suppose. What I know for sure is that, aside from one or two ballads that fall flat and the occasional bizarre vocal moment or guitar riff that could use a little more variance, etc., My Morning Jacket’s got a pretty solid record under their belt.
1. Evil Urges
It’s all the same, we’re tired of waiting, come on then
And dedicate your love to any woman or man
No racial boundary lines, no social subdivisions
If you want it, you can…
The repetitive, almost trance-like title track certainly asks a bit of any newcomer to MMJ, certainly offering an interesting hook with its synthesized noodlings and its glistening, lighter-than-air electric guitars, but delaying the gratification expected from a conventional pop song by not fully “kicking in” where you’d expect it to. Jim James’ vocals are light and fluffy, almost strained, as if he’s singing through his nose, and it’s not until the song’s bridge, which feels dropped in from another universe, that the guitarists really get to show their chops. That bit is great fun, turning string-drenched falsetto pop into a brief bit of Southern rock boogie, and it’s only when I realize that the fast-fingered guitar solo is also a tad repetitive that I start to lose my interest. Overall, it’s a fun song to listen to and it must have been a fun song to play, but the eccentricities and the band’s insistence on repeating where they could improvise and invent a little more frustrate me slightly. The message is a good setup for the themes that will be explored throughout the album – “It ain’t evil, baby, if it ain’t hurting anybody.” It’s basically a way of echoing the sentiment “What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?” for a new century, and you can interpret for yourself what kinds of love are being characterized as supposedly “evil” here – the band doesn’t really make it specific to a single issue or cause.
2. Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Part 1
How many nights can a soul so full of life remain untouched?
How can a soul make the most of what is cold and what is near?
This odd, electro-pop concoction, which is rhythmic and yet light on its feet, bass-heavy and yet fragile, invites obvious comparisons to The Flaming Lips, who could perhaps add a little more quirk and character to a generally agreeable song such as this one (though, in all fairness, James is a better singer than Wayne Coyne). It ain’t bad once you get used to it – the band’s infatuation with funk reveals itself in some of the one-note melody lines and the pimped out synthesizers, but the delivery is almost intentionally robotic, as if to depict a world in which the touch of a fellow human is a rare commodity. The middle of the song is the best part, when Patrick Hallahan‘s drums start to thicken a bit and the song takes on more of a “live band” feel, but it’s still more of a mid-tempo in-studio concoction that feels like it might work better later in the album.
3. Highly Suspicious
Wasting time home alone, dotting your i’s
Peanut butter pudding surprise
Ain’t nobody care what’s going on in your mind
But they got the eye on your prize…
If you had trouble stomaching James’ high-pitched vocals in the first track, that should probably serve as your warning to stay away from this insidious mutant of a song, which is almost entirely built around a minimal drum beat and a one-note guitar riff. It’s about as amusing of a Prince send-up as I’ve ever heard (and it once again invites a Flaming Lips comparison, thanks to their similarly bizarre song “Free Radicals”, which I might like better than this, but this is still a darn good attempt). What makes this one work where “Evil Urges” faltered a bit is how the band completely commits to the oddball style and doesn’t look back. James’ pinched falsetto collides head-on with the gruff, barking background vocals that repeat the simple chorus, “Highly suspicious of you!” over and over, there’s a fun little distorted guitar solo in the middle that shows a lot more melodic variance than you’d expect from a funk song built on a one-note riff, and it’s hard to resist the offbeat alliteration in the possibly meaningless lyric “peanut butter pudding surprise” that keeps popping up. What we’ve got here is a highly polarizing song that you will either love or hate – it’s actually my favorite on the album.
4. I’m Amazed
I’m amazed at the lack of evolution
I’m amazed at the lack of faith
I’m amazed at the love we’re rejecting
I’m amazed what we accept in its place…
I don’t know why the melody and overall tone of this song remind me of something a country band might come up with – maybe I’m thinking of a similarly-titled hit by LoneStar, even though that song sounds nothing like this one. It might be the more “Southern rock” tone of the song, with the guitars sounding a bit fuzzier despite the relaxed pace of it. They’re definitely in social protest mode here, perhaps being a bit too obvious with a chorus that gripes, “After all is said and done, where is the justice?”, but asking some reasonable questions about how easily and gullibly we accept what’s fed to us by the media and by our culture, especially regarding who we should love and when it’s permissible to show that we love them. The guitar solo shows a good amount of fire here, so don’t write it off as a syrupy adult comteporary ballad just because it seems to open in such a well-mannered fashion.
5. Thank You Too!
It was strange and it was soothing, and you could even say amusing
The way it came to me
You’d devised a simple plan that would change the fate of man
You’d thought of everything…
You could accuse this one of being a syrupy adult contemporary ballad if you wanted to. I’d have no decent defense for it regarding that particular charge. But then, I don’t care, because this is an awfully beautiful love song that once again, picks a style and is completely unabashed in showing the band’s fondness for it. This song is positively loopy with its string-drenched, swooning melodies, easily evoking pictures of people in polyester suits slow-dancing at some white bread couple’s wedding. The vocals aren’t even James’ strongest, but despite all of these things that could make the song laughable, it’s surprisingly compelling, turning out to be a high point of the album. The cynical probably won’t make it past the line “You really saw my naked heart, you really brought out the naked part” without busting a gut laughing, but then again, I’m pretty cynical and I found it to be convincingly vulnerable and disarming. I suppose I can’t be too surprisied when a band with “indie cred” manages to record such a solid song that is so unabashedly three-decades-ago-radio-friendly, but then again, I liked a lot of Wilco‘s “dad rock” stuff on their latest album, so maybe I’m just an outdated old softie. But whatever. They play it well. The guitar solo, the lyrics, and the melody are all incredibly tasty, and that’s really all I ask for.
6. Sec Walkin’
Demon eyes, demon eyes are watching everywhere
Brother, brother, don’t you care?
Now things have definitely taken a turn towards country music – it’s hard to deny the twangy influence listening to the laid-back guitar intro and the twang-inflected vocals. Of course, if this is country music, it’s poppy enough in its laid-back execution to evoke a bustling city street much more easily than it evokes images of some rural location with tumbleweeds blowing through it. It might be the combination of slide guitar and thoroughly clean electric guitar with no genuinely acoustic instruments to be found that gives it this sort of “suburban country” flavor, which of course brings to mind the soft rock sounds of the 70’s, so I can see why some listeners might have an automatic knee-jerk reaction to this one. I’m not sure if this one is an ode to a drunken walk down a city street or if there’s some sort of social plea inherent in the line “Brother, don’t you care?”, since the overall meaning of this one seems pretty hazy to me. It’s pretty, but it could probably do more to stand out.
7. Two Halves
Twenty-one, everything stays in place
Forty-one, some things start to fade
Well when you’re so young, you want to be older
And when you’re older, you’ll want the body you have now
Stronger drums and more of an upbeat tempo take us out of the 70s and into more of a “light alternative jangle-pop” sort of mood, closer in tone to the kind of thing I might expect to hear on a college radio station in the early 90’s. The lyrics, with their odd musings on how the grass is always greener on the other side no matter how old you are, certainly fit into to that whole “restless young songwriter” motif, and this turns out to be one of the band’s more inspired bits of songwriting, delivered quite well with the band letting loose a little bit more and almost rocking out near the end, and a few Beach Boys-inspired bits of backing vocals for good measure.
Looking for a lesson in the periodicals
There I spy you listening to the AM radio
Karen of the Carpenters singing in the rain
Another lovely victim of the mirror’s evil way…
Here’s another down-tempo love ballad that makes my heart flutter. This time it’s almost entirely based around the acoustic guitar, with light drums and strings politely tip-toeing their way in later. It’s got much more of a “folk song” sort of construction to it, with a repeating, circular melody line to each verse, but no discernable chorus or refrain – it’s built to tell a story instead of just grabbing us with an obvious hook. Depending on your point of view, it’s either a commendable “sensitive guy” song about a guy seeing beauty in a woman who is too shy and mousey to really know how to make the beauty God gave her apparent to others, or it’s a creepy song about a guy stalking a librarian. (I choose the former. The fact that my wife wants to become a librarian helps me to not feel like a creep when singing along to it.)
9. Look at You
We believe in your power to lead without fear
Not about, in some tower, but here
Right down here, with us, in this world…
Here’s one point where MMJ gets a bit too gloppy and mushy for me to handle. Aside from the unwise move of putting two extremely mellow ballads in a row, this one just feels too sparse to really do anything for me. I kind of like the melody, but it’s played too slowly and carefully, without a whole lot of personality injected into it. It’s also got the unfortunate distinction of sounding like a love song or praise song written to a public figure. There’s absolutely no irony intended in James’ admiration of someone who is “such a fine citizen” and “such a glowing example of peace and glory”. Remembering that this record came out in mid-2008, I can’t help but feel like I’m getting a subtle message of “Barack Obama = Our Lord and Savior” from this one, and while I voted for the guy, it’s just plain awkward to hear a song that practically deifies whoever the heck they’re singing about. I can’t really make any assumptions, but I kind of feel like I want the song to pick a direction and be definitively political, or definitively romantic, or definitively spiritual, instead of making this bizarre compromise between all three.
10. Aluminum Park
Got no lack of frustration
Got no lack of disease
But c’mon, it’s a big, big world now
You gotta like what you see…
The tempo gets a much-needed punch in the guy from this song, another jangly rocker that is apparently all about going down to the local junkyard to get some scrap metal. Yeah, I don’t have much of a clue when it comes to interpretation here, but the band plays up the jangle factor quite a bit here thanks to the accompanying piano and the buzzsaw guitar soloing – I like the style of it even if the lyrics are a bit of a head-scratcher. But this, too, gets a bit monotonous near the end, despite James’ attempts to punch it up with various excited interjections. (Did he just scream the big M.F., or did I imagine that part? Seems odd for such a generally well-groomed band.)
Then I saw a new heaven
Formed in the bleeding light of dusk
All souls, all faiths
Always, we are one…
Another rocker follows suit here, kicking the album into even higher gear – this is one of those tracks that I didn’t notice or really care for at first, but that grew on me immensely. The band’s almost worn out their penchant for one-note riffing here, but even if the rhythm guitar work is boring, the lead guitar is positively on fire, and I suppose it’s hypocritical to complain about one-note riffs when my favorite song on the disc is built on one. (Can you tell that I sometimes have a hard time figuring out how I feel about My Morning Jacket songs?) The band gets whipped up into an almost religious fervor here, which suits the lyrics, as James wails about the downfall of an empire and the emerging of a “new heaven”. It’s anyone’s guess whether this call for unity is some sort of a dig at religion or some sort of appeal to basic human decency to get members of different faiths to stop hating and killing each other. You can make your own call on that one. I’ll just enjoy all of the tasty guitar soloing.
12. Smokin’ from Shootin’
Who then was your savior? Who then was your friend?
Who is now committed to the present? Is it someone that exists?
What is life in God? A perfect vision of the self?
I always thought we were dealing with one thing, now we are dealing with something else…
So, was this really the time to go back into the down-tempo abyss for another sparse ballad? I mean, judging from the title, I’d expect another rocker here. I can’t judge the song for not being what I assumed it’d be, but this one sounds like it needs a little more than quiet bass notes and eerie slide guitar to guide it along at first. It’s a slightly creepy song that asks some strange, metaphysical questions after observing the life of a woman who has apparently grown up too fast and lost her innocence. Once the band manages to build up some steam, it actually turns out to be an interesting concoction of a sad country ballad and slow-burning R&B… it just takes too long to get there, and the chorus really feels like it needs to pack more punch. I don’t hate the song like I used to the first few times I listened to the album. But it still seems like a bit of a waypoint on the route to a much more memorable finale.
13. Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Part 2
Feeling high on wine
Human beings, heart beats
I can see it by the way you smile
I’m smilin’ too, I see myself in you…
As the previous track finally sputters out into some sort of unidentifiable white noise that bleeds into this one, a repeating, morse-code like pattern of synthesized notes begins to emerge, and this suddenly gives way to a self-consciously cool disco beat. This song sounds absolutely nothing like its similarly-named counterpart, but the lyrics constrast it nicely, as James insinuates that being touched by another human will cause him to scream, which is the exact opposite of what he said in Part 1. I’m not convinced that this screaming is a bad thing – it’s more like being woken from a bad dream, surprised by something unusual and foreign that unexpectedly feels good. I get an oddly sexual vibe from the hazy, danceable feel of this song, especially as James sings, “Oh, this feeling is wonderful, don’t you ever turn it off”. That might be because his falsetto and the disc-obsessed soundscape give me bizarre flashbacks to the Scissor Sisters. But then again, the Scissor Sisters got all existential on us by covering Pink Floyd and asking, “Is there anybody out there?”, and perhaps that’s the question that’s really being asked here. It’s just a plea for the simple enjoyment of human contact, whether that takes a sexual form or it’s just a simple matter of someone daring to reach through the sterile, cold facade society expects us to put up and says, “Hey, man, I feel your pain.” However you slice it, it’s hard to resist the glistening guitars, the haunting background vocals that dominate the song’s long code, or Two-Tone Tommy‘s booming bass that drives the song all the way through. This one might’ve nudged its way to the very top of my “favorite tracks” list if the band hadn’t made the bizarre artistic decision to end it by slowing that opening snyth melody to a halt in the most painfully drawn-out manner possible. A simple fade-out would have sufficed guys, but oh well, thanks for trying to do something different anyway.
14. Good Intentions
This track is merely a few seconds of some strange, screeching noise, and a guy saying, “OK cool.” Not exactly a climactic ending, but I guess you can just pretend the album concluded with track 13.
So that’s how I feel about Evil Urges – it’s a melodically tasty album that does its best to hook the listener by going for the lighter side of the rock spectrum more often than it goes for the obvious big rock hook, and in doing so, it can be really frustrating at first, but it can also be quite addictive once you get over the hit-and-miss nature of it. I’d recommend it to aficionados of retro rock sounds, or to anyone musically curious who doesn’t mind running the risk of looking uncool when it’s found out that they’re in love with an album that stylistically hearkens back to an era most modern folks would rather consider dead. Be patient with the band’s eccentricities and their habit of mining musical influences that you thought could only be used for annoying, evil purposes, and eventually, you’ll find the human connection reaching out to you through all of the stylized strangeness.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Evil Urges $1
Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Part 1 $1
Highly Suspicious $1.50
I’m Amazed $1
Thank You Too! $1.50
Sec Walkin’ $1
Two Halves $1
Look at You $0
Aluminum Park $.50
Smokin’ from Shootin’ $.50
Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Part 2 $1.50
Good Intentions $0
Jim James: Vocals, lead and rhythm guitars
Carl Broemel: Guitar
Bo Koster: Keyboards
“Two-Tone” Tommy: Bass
Patrick Hallahan: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.