On outstanding albums such as At Dawn and It Still Moves, Jim James and My Morning Jacket re-wrote the book on Southern rock, re-imagining the heartland’s rootsy rockers as an atmospheric bunch of experimentalists. While guitars blaze and tear through solos, and the hair (facial, too) stretches for miles, the reverb and psychedelic textures keep everything from ever being pinned down to one specific region, or planet. Still, with their innovative take on a classic sound, there also came a bit of indulgence. On 2003’s It Still Moves, only two songs ended before hitting the five-minute mark, and several shot well beyond seven. Stunning an album as it was, it did require some lengthy stops in between plays. Anything over 70 minutes can be exhausting, particularly when an album has as much sonic depth as My Morning Jacket provides. Two years later, some things have been changed around. Longer songs have been traded for shorter, more digestible tracks (for the most part), the jam band tendencies have been all but extracted, leaving a leaner, more focused rock `n’ roll band, greeting fans with the finest album of their career.
Curiously titled Z, MMJ’s new album seems to favor a combination of Mercury Rev, Led Zeppelin and Elton John over It Still Moves‘ Pink Floyd, Neil Young and Flaming Lips. Bits and pieces of each pop up now and then, but Z, despite the finality the title might invoke, actually opens up a new chapter for the group, one that finds them focusing more on tighter songwriting than free-form exploration, not that they were ever exactly Phish.
It all makes sense once you soak in the ’70s AM pop of opener “Wordless Chorus,” which features an absolute minimum of guitars, plucking gently underneath a warm organ lead and Jim James’ falsetto howling. It’s a mellow vibe that the band puts forth here, one reminiscent of Elton John, whose “Rocket Man” the band covered in the past. A more haunting, ethereal psychedelic rock sound emerges on “It Beats 4 U,” which was not written by Prince, if you must know. Here everything that the band has done well in the past comes together in a perfect, harmonious amalgamation. The ambiance, the lovely melody, James’ ghostly delivery: it’s one of the best songs the band has written.
“Gideon,” as well, is a marvelous track, the band taking on a more anthemic U2-like arena sound. A spiraling guitar repetition drives the song while crashing Pete Townshend like chords break through with utter devastation. James’ voice, again, soars over the anthem during the final climax, making for what one would assume to be a truly awesome live staple, though I’ll readily admit that I’ve never actually seen them live. The two-and-a-half minute “What a Wonderful Man” continues with a Who-like rock explosion, simple and straightforward, but rocking hard all the same.
The Led Zeppelin influence is most apparent on “Off the Record,” a modern semi-update of “D’yer Mak’er.” A guitar riff borrowed from “Hawaii Five-O” starts off the song, but once it’s done, the band treks through a chugging, heavy reggae progression that sounds like the aforementioned (and oddball) song from Houses of the Holy. “Anytime” is further proof that the band is at their best playing stadium-ready rockers, despite their less immediately accessible past. “Knot Comes Loose” is possibly the prettiest song, a twinkly Americana folk tune, and “Dondante,” the epic seven-minute closer, makes better use of MMJ’s more lengthy composition by taking the song into different realms of volume and speed, not a single moment wasted.
It should be noted that it’s not necessarily the opinion of the reviewer that catchiness is the paragon of what good music is. It just happens to work particularly well for a band like My Morning Jacket. Though they did a fine job on creating an ambient / psychedelic / Southern rock union, their musical evolution has brought them to a sound that suits them quite well. And unlike previous records, you won’t need to take a breather after listening to this one. You can just go right ahead and press play again.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.