Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My Morning Jacket - Circuital Review

Circuital by My Morning Jacket is a relatively solid album, but one that doesn't really stand out, as their previous three studio releases did. Absent are the guitar anthems of It Still Moves, the brilliant songwriting of Z, and the transcendent funk of Evil Urges.  What is left this time is a more conventional, easy going, mellow, pop approach.  Still, when I focus on the music I tend to enjoy it.  It's when I listen to the lyrics that it starts to lose me.  I almost wish Jim James was singing in Swedish or something so I could just hear his voice as an instrument and enjoy it simply for the sound it makes and not have to focus on what he's actually saying: stuff like a day that is coming, finding your own inner light, getting your ya-yas out - all fairly common, cliche subjects for such grandiose songs.

However, focusing on the music also has a tendency to make apparent the band's capabilities as well as its limitations.  The not-Jim-James members of MMJ are definitely a talented group of musicians, but here their contributions to the jamming and expression feel a bit stifled and routine. The drummer definitely has a fall back beat they get into more often than they should; the keyboards don’t add enough to the dynamic, and the guitars are kept to a subdued, accent role.

Here are some song by song notes.

Victory Dance – Good opener.  Nice vibe.  Sneaks up on you.  Begs the question: where is this victory dance taking place?

Circuital –  This song is too long and tries too hard to be "big".  Doesn't really build to anything profound.  Comes across as kind of silly.

Day Is Coming – Not this again?  Somebody claiming that a day is coming? Hmmm...what day is that I wonder?  There is no depth to this cliché-ridden song.  It falls flat. On the bright side: has good reggae beat.

Wonderful (The Way I Feel) – The long-awaited classic song finally makes it onto one of their major records.  Jim James wants to go to a place where all this wonderful stuff happens like no disease, no police, and only spirits at ease.  Good for him.  It does contain some memorable lyrics, including “I can learn from way back when and still live right now”.

Outta My System – Is this something a rock band needs to be singing about?  Yes, we all come of age.  Correct.  As I said before, the subject matter = not as epic as its musical treatment suggests.

Holdin’ On to Black Metal – Probably the best track on album.  The only one I would call really good or very catchy.  Sounds like a mix of Owner of a Lonely Heart and Shakedown Street.  Fun and cool in a similar way to Highly Suspicious from Evil Urges.  There's a nice section at the end of song. 

First Light – As in first light I've seen tonight, star bright.  There's not enough to this song.  Singing about searching for something and finding your own inner light.  Really?  Another quasi-epiphany that is actually basic self awareness.  Behind all this is a rock song ready to break free, albeit one that is mismatched for its message.  I don't really see how that premise inspires a song to sound like this?  It’s almost formulaic…singing about an inner light while rocking real hard.

You Want to Freak Out – Reminds me of a Toby song from Dr. Dog.  It does have some nice steel guitar licks.  One of the albums better songs.

Slow Slow Tune – Kinda like a Stella Blue or Don Dante.  Builds to a decent crescendo.  Not a bad song.  I mean tune.  I mean song. 

Movin’ Away – More of the mellow and then you're done.  That's it?  Hey wait a minute - there hasn't been a spine chilling jam, total freak out moment, tribal war whoop, or shamanistic release.

In Summary:
Some of the things we've come to expect  from MMJ - both good and ill - are to be found on Circuital while some other things - mostly the good things - are missing.  It's a more mellow approach that works better as background music than as an upbeat, in your face, inspirational meltdown (like their live Okonokos DVD for example). It is a dissapointment?  Depends on what you're looking to get from one of America's premiere rock bands.  For me I don't think it's ultimately going to make much of an impact; I can take it or leave it.

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