In Brief: MMJ’s odd commitment to merging Southern rock with 70’s pop and funk can be quite enjoyable. But somewhere midway through, this album short-circuits.
Can man live on vibe alone? That seems to be the question that My Morning Jacket is begging on their newest album, Circuital. It’s not like this is a new approach for the band – several tracks on 2008’s Evil Urges leaned toward this, trying to make something larger-than-life out of cooled-off rhythms that barely built to a simmer, or occasionally even a one-note riff. And they more or less made a name for themselves by doing the whole Southern rock/jam band thing, before taking a decidedly suburban term with that album’s attempt to resurrect frequently-mocked genres that were big circa the 70’s. Part of me admired the all-over-the-place nature of that album, because when an experiment was crazy enough to work, it really worked, and there was also some unexpectedly gorgeous down-tempo material scattered in between. However, part of the problem with this approach was that the rockers almost felt out of place, and much of the rest of the album didn’t seem to be aiming far beyond nice and innocuous. Circuital, for better or worse, pares back some of the genre-hopping to focus on its 70’s pop vibe a little more, and aside from the occasional oddball surprise which can seem more out of place now than it did before, it’s pretty much an album that remains on cruise control. I can get into the groove of so many of these songs, but it sort of fizzles out when I wonder what exactly this group is trying to communicate or whether they’re really being effective at doing so.
The vibe is admittedly an enticing one. Though it’s a frequently ridiculed era from the perspective of fans who like “real” rock & roll, there’s something about the takin’-it-easy nature of 70’s soft rock that has appealed to me for a while now. I get this mental picture of a dude with shaggy hair and a moustache, driving down some desert road, with one of these songs blaring from the AM radio, no hurry to get to the next town and no real cares in the world. A bit of funk influence on the more upbeat tunes will trade in that dusky landscape for a slick city street on a cool winter’s day, but still it’s harmless, without too many gritty elements visible, just everyone smiling at each other as they go about their business. MMJ’s music brings to mind a certain Utopia that we used to dream about decades ago, but have perhaps given up on since then. It’s an alluring idea, but never a fully-formed one, since the lyrics are often so silly (sometimes intentionally so) that I think they’re there to tug at my heartstrings more so than my brain… um, strings. To a certain extent, I can get into the big, dumb fun of it.
But then sometimes it’s a bit of a bummer, especially when one considers the five-man ensemble that seems to be largely going to waste here. MMJ’s approach is so economical, it feels at times like three guys could have it all locked down. It’s largely a vehicle for Jim James‘ voice, which is pretty good as far as retro rock singers go, registering somewhere between falsetto soul crooner and good ol’ country boy. Since he handles a lot of the lead guitar duties but only tries to set the room on fire sparingly with said instrument, it can feel like a lot of the rest of the guys in the band are just punching the clock, which is not to slight their talent so much as it is to say that the material isn’t being written to show it off. A good two or three of these songs could well have been recorded while a few of them are on a lunch break, which means that Circuital runs the risk of sounding like a solo album with special guests at times. One or two of the more long-winded tracks give me a better idea of what this band could sound like if they really opened up, but none of those really approach the sonic glory of the best tracks from Evil Urges (and long-term fans of the band would likely tell you their old stuff kicks a lot more butt in that department). All of this can make Circuital feel like the sort of album that rock bands dread realizing in retrospect that they’ve made – a pleasant enough listening experience that does its job, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really stick in the brain. I’ve been enjoying it frequently this summer, but something tells me that’ll be winding down as more new and exciting records vie for my attention this fall.
1. Victory Dance
And the album starts with… a gong of all things. It all but sounds like we’re being welcomed into some sort of cosmic throne room, this arrival heralded by strange voices imitating trumpets. Seriously, I have no idea what that vocal fanfare is all about, but it’s catchy, so I’ll go with it. Extremely lounged-out keyboards drone along in monotone, as does Jim James’s primary melody, which sort of sounds like a really chill, space-aged approximation of a blues progression or something. I’m not sure whether it’s victorious or danceable, but it’s intriguing, particularly when a big electric guitar swoops in to add a little pizazz to the refrain. MMJ is getting all Biblical on us with this one, talkin’ about doing hard work in the fields and the meek inheriting the Earth and some other interesting… vaguely spiritual… stuff. I make fun of it, but I do enjoy the song, particularly for its rather surprising explosion of speed at the end, where it quite suddenly gains momentum with thundering, terrifying drums, before the beast finally collapses under its sheer metallic weight. Alright guys, you’ve successfully snagged my attention. Let’s see how long you can keep it.
This is a really great title track, and as much as I might make fun of MMJ for being long on groove and short on substance, I do really mean this. It starts with quiet guitar plucking, picking out a curious melody, that develops into a free-spirited acoustic guitar strum that threatens to break into a full-on joyful chorus, but then it holds back and makes you wait for it. Seeing as the song is seven minutes long, I’m OK with the delayed payoff, because once the band gets there, the song is quite generously filled with room for soloing and just has that overall energy that makes you want to smile. All of this in a song that, when you examine it more closely, is about warring belief systems. Who’d have thunk it? And sure, it’s basically one of those “Can’t we all just get along sorts of pleas”, phrased in charmingly silly fashion: “Well you can fling open the windows/Or you can board them up/Satan’s jeweled crown/Or Christ’s humble cup.” Yeah, not sure I’ll be taking that one too seriously as social commentary. But undoubtedly this song is just an event unto itself at the band’s live shows. At least it should be. I can see them stretching it out to Dave Matthews Band proportions, and if I don’t give the DMB too much of a hard time for their religious spitballing, then I can’t be too bothered by MMJ’s attempt at it here.
3. The Day Is Coming
“BAA-da-da-BAA-da-da-BAA-da!” Man, I just can’t help but bleat along with that vocal hook at the top of my lungs, even though they’re being all clever and starting on the downbeat and I always seem to lose my place. That’s embarrassing, losing the rhythm during a simple 3-minute pop song in 4/4, but oh well, that doesn’t stop this from being my favorite song on the record by a good mile. All due respect to the two opening tracks, this one’s just irresistible. I know it’s all rhythm and keyboards and fake strings and candied 70’s-throwback melody, not an ounce of macho rock manliness in sight, but I really don’t care. It makes me smile for much the same reason that “Thank You Too!” did on Evil Urges, though this one’s less of a love song and more of a warning that you better not life pass you by because “The day is coming, the day is clear/The day is coming, you know what I mean.” Well, actually dude, I have no frigging clue what you mean, because the song’s as vague as all get-out, but as you’ve probably already surmised, I didn’t come for mind-blowing lyrics, I came for solid grooves, and this one’s as deep in it as they come.
4. Wonderful (The Way I Feel)
This is the first point where I start to wonder if I’m listening to a backdoor pilot for a Jim James solo career. Not that I mind mellow acoustic numbers… “Librarian” was one of my favorites on Evil Urges. But this one throws a heavy dose of cloying at you right from the get-go, with the little “Disney string swoop” that introduces it, and it proceeds to sound like just about the most easy-going, inoffensive soft rock song ever written, designed to make the rest of the band mostly stay out of the way (other than the acoustic guitar and the intentionally saccharine strings, there’s little except for soft drums near the end that feel like they’re trying to not be noticed). I suppose this is all fair for a song about finding the most peaceful place can imagine, which for Jim James is full of mixed metaphors: “Like a tropical forest/Like a cop on the beat/When all is in order/You get lost in the heat.” Remember that odd bit later when he declares “I’m going where there ain’t no police/I’m going where there ain’t no disease/I’m going where there ain’t no need/To escape from what is only spirits at ease.” So there ain’t no police there, ’cause they got lost in the heat? Are you looking for Utopia, or just an unusually sanitary key party? No matter. It’s a pretty song and all, but I need a serious spoonful of medicine to help this sugar go down.
5. Outta My System
Oh man. This one of those songs where you just have to admire the audacity. I’m really not sure if it’s a joke, because it doesn’t quite seem to be self-aware enough to play as intentional humor, but either way, it’s a doozy. Musically, it definitely remains on coast, with the bass and guitar providing a mostly one-note base to build on, the tempo struggling at medium, and the song never really kicking into high gear, settling for laid-back steel guitar sounds that ring out clearly over the landscape, as if to make a concession somewhere between blue-eyed funk and country. Can’t blame ’em for trying. But the lyrics… hoo boy. James is probably going for one of those reflections on youth where he realizes he wouldn’t be the man he was today if not for the stupid mistakes he made way back when, but the way he phrases it, well let’s just hope there aren’t any rabid moral guardians listening: “They told me not to smoke drugs, but I wouldn’t listen/Never thought I’d get caught and wind up in prison/Chalk it up to youth but young age I ain’t dissin’/I guess I just had to get it outta my system.” That’s right, kids! No time like the present to get enrolled in the Scared Straight program! And while you’re at it, another good way to stave off a potential mid-life crisis decades down the road is to get laid as much as possible now and then go steal some cars! Let me channel Dave Barry for a second here: I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. The third verse is actually about stealing cars. ‘Cause you know, if there’s one thing I regret not doing more of as a wayward teenager, it’s going for a joyride in my neighbor’s BMW! I’m probably interpreting this the wrong way – it’s not like these guys are making music for kids anyway. I mean, if there were a highly-anticipated movie about to come out with a bunch of fuzzy puppets that the kids are just gonna love, and the band submitted a song like this for the soundtrack of that movie, then that might be a boneheaded move. Thankfully they’ve got the good sense not to try that!
6. Holdin’ on to Black Metal
So I’ll admit that I have this weird pet peeve with songs whose titles reference a genre that does not actually describe the musical style of the song. I had the same beef with Wilco‘s “Heavy Metal Drummer”. To be fair, it would be stupid to expect a metal song from either Wilco or MMJ, but still – it just weirds me out to hear a song extolling the greatness of a type of music that’s comparatively a lot bigger and badder than what you’re actually playing. What’s really bizarre about this one is that MMJ’s going for some sort of horn-heavy funk atmosphere, which I will say is noticeably louder than most of the album, but it sounds like an oddball genre approximation by way of Romper Room or something. I know those probably aren’t kids singing the vocal hook that consists of about twenty “Whoa”s and “Yeahs” apiece, but man, if they had Kidz Bop in the 70’s, it might sound something like this. The lyrics are about how said genre (I mean black metal, not Kidz Bop funk) is completely misunderstood, and I suppose it’s being held on to as a memento of rebellious youth, just a necessary phase those crazy kids needed to go through. In that context, it makes sense that MMJ isn’t playing black metal now, though if any of them ever did, I’d be quite amused to hear it. I’ll be honest and say that I like some of the fuzzed-out guitar work here, and after a while the brash melody of this song works its way into my head by brute force. So I have to give it some small amount of credit for its sheer ridiculousness. But I don’t have to give it much more than that.
7. First Light
It makes all kind of sense for a song about metal to transition into a song that starts off with a resounding metallic CLANG. That and the introductory riff are enough to make me think some serious rock goodness is ahead, and since we haven’t really had any of that since about track two, I’m up for it. Unfortunately the pitch is a lot better than the final product – a song which tries to boogie with the best of ’em, but somewhere in between the fun rhythmic syncopation, the saxophone, and the repetitive lyrics and melody, the lead guitar just seems to drop out altogether until near the end. Not all songs have to be guitar heavy to sound great, but man, don’t tease us like that! Despite my gripe about the song feeling incomplete, it’s fun and it’s one of the few tracks on the album where I can’t find much to make fun of, so that’s something.
8. You Wanna Freak Out
Now once again, there are certain kinds of song titles that you probably don’t want to use unless you’re specifically trying to create expectations. Mentioning “freaking out” is probably one of those situations where you only want to do it if the song itself has some pretty good instances of freaking out. There’s a jittery little bridge in this one where more of that fuzzed-out guitar meets lap steel as the drums stop and start and tell us we’re in full-on breakdown mode, which is cool and all, but the rest of the song’s on cruise control, sort of bumping along on a rhythm of 6/8 with an even acoustic guitar strum and some keyboards running up and down the scales. Interesting, but not terribly… freak-y. I guess the song’s about instigating a guy who is obsessed with playing it cool to really break down and show how he feels, so maybe that’s appropriate, but what’s thematically appropriate and what’s interesting to listen to aren’t always the same thing. Still a fun song, but not one that quite lives up to its potential.
9. Slow Slow Tune
Well, at least some song titles are truth in advertising. And this one… yikes. It’s painfully truthful about how painfully slow it is. The drums sort of lazily stumble along to the beat like someone bumbling about in the dark, and James sounds like he’s going for one of those Eric Clapton things where you hold the guitar notes for a long time and try to wring the soul out of them, but I’m not buying it. Most embarrassingly, the entire song is dedicated to justifying its slowness. See, it was written for his kid, sometime far in the future, who will hear this and be given the important message: “Gotta radiate the gold.” Hey, I’m all for writing sensitive songs where you get to gush about the newly discovered joys of parenthood. Don’t get me wrong – nearly every songwriter who procreates has tried it at one point or another. But when your lyrics, on a song included on a commercially released album, are specifically defending something un-trendy by saying it’s not written for the contemporary audience listening to it, who is apparently too dumb to appreciate slow slow songs, then uh, WHY DID YOU PUT IT ON THE ALBUM? Just sayin’.
10. Movin’ Away
And we follow up that self-consciously slow song with… an epic closing romp that rivals that magnificent “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Part 2”. Ha ha, just kidding. Actually it’s another dreary ballad, if you can believe it (and who I am I trying to fool, you can totally believe it at this point). This time around it’s in 3/4 time, just for variety’s sake, and it’s piano-based, with a touch of lap-steel just to give it that “endless flat prairie” sort of vibe. This could work as a sensitive closing song, a sort of loving dedication to a woman he wants to create “a new little life” with in whatever new city they’re headed for. But it drags on and on for over five minutes, and as much as I could see this being the soundtrack for a road trip to Middle-of-Nowhere, USA, I’m willing to bet you’d probably drift off and crash your U-Haul in the process. Having two tracks that are suddenly this glaringly mellow at the end of the album feels a bit schizophrenic – the rest of it may have lagged in energy at times, but at least most of it felt like it kept a good chunk of the band engaged.
I don’t mean to be so down on MMJ when I do still think they make interesting music. I just see so much more potential in them than the actual output I’ve heard, for two albums straight now. And I know that they can whip out those really awesome songs from time to time that are utterly committed to whatever genre throwback they’re doing, but that don’t have to feel so half-hearted in the process. It’s especially maddening on Circuital due to how they started with some of their best material and then just sort of fizzled out. I’d still recommend the album as a fun little curiosity to pull out and listen to from time to time. But come the end of the year, it’s gonna be far enough down the list that I’ll probably have forgotten what most of it sounds like.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Victory Dance $1.50
The Day Is Coming $1.50
Wonderful (The Way I Feel) $1
Outta My System $.50
Holdin’ on to Black Metal $.50
First Light $1
You Wanna Freak Out $1
Slow Slow Tune -$.50
Movin’ Away $0
Jim James: Lead vocals, guitars
Carl Broemel: Guitars, pedal steel, saxophone, backing vocals
Bo Koster: Keyboards, percussion, backing vocals
Tom “Two-Tone Tommy” Blankenship: Bass
Patrick Hallahan: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.