One could make the argument that Louisville Kentucky’s My Morning Jacket is the best rock band in America. Their musical evolution has certainly been the most interesting to follow over the past decade.
After making a splash on the indie scene with the alt-country gems Tennessee Fire and At Dawn early in the century, MMJ made a huge rock statement with 2003’s It Still Moves. Their major label debut, It Still Moves was a reverb drenched rock album that recalled Skynard by way of the Loaded era Velvets and a nod to Stax era R&B.
During this time MMJ also began to make a name for themselves as a powerful live band. Their down-home swagger and the ability to stretch out jams in concert endeared them to jaded indie hipsters and blissed out hippies alike. A My Morning Jacket concert was like a revelation, like a ragged and loud church.
The heart and soul of the band radiates from singer and guitarist Jim James. His vocal style can best be summed up as a combination of an archangel and Kermit the frog (he cites Kermit and the Muppets as an influence, seriously). He is an absolutely riveting and mesmerizing presence. The power of the band erupts from the drums of Patrick Hallahan, a Bonhamesque drummer who (in keeping with the Muppets comparisons) bares an uncanny resemblance to Animal.
As great as It Still Moves was, it’s sepia toned rock was brought to technicolor life on 2005’s masterpiece Z. Z is eclectic and fun, a passionate artistic statement that brought MMJ to the cusp of super-stardom. Playing with a menagerie of styles and influences including electronica, dub, soul, in addition to the worn in classic rock sound, MMJ released one of the greatest albums of the past decade.
The triumph of Z may explain why 2008’s Evil Urges seemed like something of a disappointment. It’s a solid album, often brilliant, but after the peak of Z there had to be a let down. Much of Evil Urges continues along the same evolutionary path as Z, but without the coherence. In many ways this was to be the band’s coming out party; the album that sold millions, which made them a household name. Songs like “I’m Amazed” and “Thank You!” were catchy enough and annoying enough to become chart toppers. On the other hand, the album was filled with enough eclecticism and forward thinking to scare away the mainstream. The country/electronica lament “Smokin’ from Shootin’” and the unbelievably funky-cool-beautiful disco “Touch Me, I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2” are sonic evolutions of what they had conjured on Z.
So where do My Morning Jacket go now? Mainstream success? Art rock craftsmen ala Radiohead?
Z found MMJ reach an artistic summit; Evil Urges, for all its pop posturing, found them drifting laterally. After a heavy year of touring, and a sold out New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden, MMJ is taking something of a break for 2009. They will be writing new songs, and recording a new album. It is clear that bandleader Jim James is a restless and searching soul—someone eager to take chances.
My Morning Jacket is the best thing to happen to rock music in years. Whatever path they take, it will be interesting to watch them continue to evolve and grow.
"One Big Holiday" from Okonokos, 2006