The songs that My Morning Jacket create, set against lush pastoral backdrops, have always been infused with something beautiful and serious and notoriously impossible to categorize. Their earlier full-length recordings, Tennessee Fire and At Dawn -- this reviewer is an avid fan of both -- were songs hung loosely, then held together in a delicate fashion by Jim James's reverberating vocals, the yearning poetry within each song, and the band's ability to extend songs into instrumental meanderings without losing their structural integrity. And while this latest release -- Z (ATO/RCA/BMG) -- is certainly a well-made rock record and may please some with its smoothed-out production and electronic dabblings, it's an unfortunate step down from the band's earlier sensitivity. No poetry and whiskey here, rather a washboard approach to the songwriting and sound that doesn't do the band proper justice.
"Knot Comes Loose" and "Dondante" are the record's strongest points. In "Knot Comes Loose," murmured words over pedal steel guitars and simple piano lines evoke the rural sensibility the band is so expert at creating. Loose construction, to lovely result. "Dondante," similarly, finds James and the band at their best, vocals singing up and down in his characteristic strain, with drums and guitars working the song's internal groove with gentle nudges until breaking into a crescendo at the song's end. The lyricism and emotional elegance of these songs stand in contrast to much of the rest of this record, which either get too distracted by the electronic counterparts mixed in, overrun by them altogether, or lack the instrumental subtlety that an MMJ fan would expect.
It's not that the rest of the record is bad, per se. It's more like MMJ is settling for its own second best, with production and arrangements adding to the problem -- rather than being freed by production, it feels constricted by it.
Take "Gideon," for example. MMJ brings an epic quality to many of its songs, but here, the production makes the epic turn heavy-handed. The vocals are reduced by the Bono-like, effects-laden strains, as opposed to James's usually lovely and unaffected wailing. "Anytime" is another case in point -- a well-constructed rock song whose production is once again mismatched in tone, like lacquering a coat of wood finish on solid oak. MMJ songs just don't need it, and such overlaid production should be applied in the spirit of the song, not vice versa. What results is a generic, radio-mediocre, rock sound. While producer John Leckie (Stone Roses, Radiohead) has successfully added his fingerprints to other bands' work, his approach doesn't suit MMJ. Indeed, "It Beats for You" and "Wordless Chorus" are saved primarily by James's voice, the natural earnestness of which draws one to listen. These tracks, while catchy and easy to listen to in their '70s soul vibe, are simply hampered by the production. It's the synth flourishes, the plain annoying sound effects (effects-drenched whistling, for example, in "It Beats for You"), uninspired rock drumming, and effects added onto the guitars that plague the entire record, creating a sound that is expansive but sadly lacking in depth.
As a purist, it's also disappointing to hear the band veering off into straight-out rock and roll -- it's the straightforwardness of it that's disappointing. Certainly MMJ has done rock songs before, but not like "Off the Record" or even "Anytime," which almost seem silly in their bare-bones lyrics and tone, and especially in comparison to their earlier records. (In "Anytime," James quotes Madonna's "Express Yourself.") However, the '70s R&B/soul groove, an underlying theme of the record, does get an effective nod towards the middle of "Off the Record," where MMJ thankfully drop the song's formulaic rock structure (this is the first MMJ song I could imagine being played at some suburban mall with no one paying any attention to the music itself, just mindlessly bobbing their heads) in the first half for a digressive instrumental strand in the second part.
As for the introduction of electronic elements to MMJ's work, though such experimentation is to be lauded, unhappily it doesn't work here. In fact, the album's biggest misstep is "Into the Woods." There are actually cat meows mixed into the background when James sings the lyric "a kitten on fire." The production is not only glaringly obvious, but utterly distracting. Indeed, the carnivalesque organ part serves as an apt metaphor for the song itself -- a sideshow of oddities (obnoxious effects) and misshapen forms (incongruent mixing). One might think M. Ward's guest appearance on the song could lend some first aid, but it doesn't add or take away a thing.
My Morning Jacket is a special band that has created a record that doesn't match its credentials. Z is still better than most records to be found in stock at Virgin, but it falls short of the high standard -- lyrically, instrumentally, thematically -- the band has set with its past records. If you're looking to add a good rock record to your collection, Z is a safe bet. That's the heart of the problem: Most of the record feels too mediocre and safe for MMJ's own brilliant good. - Christine Back
Ms. Back lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn with three guitars, a 1950s Mason & Hamlin piano, and a beagle. When not studying legal doctrine and social justice law, she fronts the indie-rock band Que Verde and dabbles in art, film, and writing projects.