My Morning Jacket loosens up - 8/20/2008

Evil Urges enhances the band's creative resumé

Many bands settle into their suburban tracts after four albums, content to reiterate the sounds and themes explored in their first decade. Yeah, they'll add some strings, or do an acoustic album, but generally they're content to sit back and raise their kids.

My Morning Jacket is the exceptional act that significantly expanded its horizons just as it was emerging into the spotlight. During its first five years, the Louisville quintet recorded three albums of country rock and folk, echoing Neil Young and the Band, with a rugged jam-band boogie. Indeed, its early reputation was earned on its energetic, hard-charging live performances.

It could have settled there, content with its indie-country niche. Instead, 2005's Z moved the band beyond that fuzzed-out, rambling-rock ghetto and stretched its muscle. A critical fave and resident of most year-end top 10 lists, the album wandered widely, invoking pop texture, art-rock grandeur, pretty piano balladry and bubbly power pop without totally abandoning their Southern-fried rustic stomp.

It set My Morning Jacket on a new shelf, and the intervening three years heightened anticipation for Evil Urges (ATO Records), released in June. It's even more ambitious, if not nearly as felicitous stylistically. Though it's failed to garner as much universal adoration as Z, Evil Urges pushes the band into new territory while simultaneously looking back to My Morning Jacket's beginnings.

"The big change there was having Carl and Bo in the band," bassist Two-Tone Tommy says from his Louisville home regarding the two things that helped engender the break Z represents from MMJ's three prior efforts. "That and recording outside our comfort zone, which was the farm that we always recorded on. It was the first time we worked with a producer and actually let somebody into our world."

Music school multi-instrumentalists Bo Koster and Carl Broemel replaced original guitarist Johnny Quaid and keyboardist Danny Cash, both of whom had burned out on the constant road regimen. The two new members brought expertise the remaining three lacked, and they renewed the band's energy after some grueling years on tour.

"It's just one of those things about having new guys in the band, and for the other three of us to have it be something different in a sense gives it a new life," Tommy says. "The process wasn't probably too different ... just having some fresh ears and some different background perspectives with those two guys."

Yet they failed to take the departure of Cash and Quaid as a hint, and continued touring just as hard after Z. That lead to hospitalizations for frontman Jim James who suffered from pneumonia, and Tommy who was sidelined by severe dehydration. "I think our bodies had been telling us for a long time, 'You need to chill out, you need to take some time,'" Tommy says.

James used the time to get in a healthy, positive relationship. Though the relationship ended shortly before recording the new album, the songs on Evil Urges reflect James' renewed vitality.

"Last spring, we got the demos for this record and the first thing I noticed is that they were more upbeat than the last record," Tommy says. "You could definitely hear that, and it's all speculation, but I'm sure part of it was him having a relationship he was happy with at the time, and just being in a different head space."

Evil Urges is front-loaded with curveballs. From the Robert Plantish falsetto of the lithe, album-opening title track (which echoes Zeppelin's "D'yer Maker" in its hip-swinging sway), to the strutting funk of "Highly Suspicious," and the billowy, organ-driven yacht-rock lilt of "Thank You Too!," a distinct '70s air pervades. It suggests that they're on their way to becoming Fleetwood Mac.

James' voice, in particular, stands out rather than being shrouded in reverb, as usual.

"You could hear it all over the record. It sounds like different characters, which I think is kind of a testament to him being comfortable with his voice," Tommy says. "It really felt like on this one he could use the reverb as more of a tool instead of something that was kind of covering up the nakedness of his voice."

Released on vinyl as two albums, the second album kicks off with "Two Halves," and offers a familiar Americana tone before spinning off into a psychedelic direction. The album concludes with the spacey soul of the eight-minute closer, "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream, Pt. 2" – a counterpart to the album's burbling, folk-pop second track.

"The first three songs and the last two or three songs are the most out-there of anything we've ever done," Tommy says. "If you took just those five to six songs, it's a Ween record – a different genre every time. But a genre that I don't even know exists."

Consider it another step in MMJ's popular ascent toward mainstream shores.

"We've slowly climbed up the hill career-wise, but it's still like I can't believe this is all happening. It's been that way for several years," Tommy says. "I guess in a way, I should get used to expecting the unexpected."

So should My Morning Jacket's fans.