Okay, I’ll admit I was wrong. I saw My Morning Jacket in 2006, opening for Ray Davies at the Taste of Chicago festival, and I was not impressed. Granted, they had two things working against them – 1) the sound system was atrocious, and 2) I couldn’t wait for Ray to get on stage. I noticed a small throng of MMJ devotees crowding the stage, garbed – like the band – in what looked like Neil Young’s cast-off ragged jeans and combat jackets. For the life of me I couldn’t get the attraction. I was just glad they cleared out in time for us to grab the front row seats.
It’s taken me this long to give them a second listen. (I’ll admit that for a while, I confused them with My Chemical Romance – another strike against them.) But I’ve been driving a lot this summer, and every time My Morning Jacket came on the radio, I liked what I heard. Really liked it. The debt to Uncle Neil is still clear – Jim James’s voice can't help but sound like Neil Young -- but they’ve got many more cards up their rumpled sleeves.
This 2005 album, Z, is probably what they were playing when I saw them (yeah, like I remember), and it’s a treasure. This song kicks off the album with a whoosh, grooving along on a funked-up reggae beat. (So much for the alt-country label.) The same syncopated melodic line repeats, trance-like, throughout the verse, dipping down and then gently levitating upward. Like a latter-day Marvin Gaye, Jim James soulfully muses, “So much going on these days / Forget about instinct, it's not what pays.” Ah, but that copasetic groove, it’s all about instinct, isn’t it? My irony detector’s beeping already, and it goes into overdrive when he adds, “A carton of eggs think it's all worthwhile.” (I kinda like the egg-carton image, weird as it is.) Looking askance at the me-too pursuit of the Next New Thing, he adds, “Tell me, spirit, what has not been done? / I'll rush out and do it -- or are we doing it now?”
Then, with a single cut-off beat, the song shifts gears, morphing into a lush wall of sound, a full bank of shifting vocal harmonies singing . . . well, “Ahh – wahh ahh – whoa-oh ahh.” Aha, the wordless chorus of the title. James wheels around on top with some falsetto yips and howls, and you’re carried away on the sheer soulfulness of it.
In verse two, he bucks the trend, declaring, “But you know all of this can change / Remember the promise as a kid you made.” Considering the throwback honesty of their sound, this stuff about original intentions makes perfect sense to me. And after another repeat of that wordless chorus, he plants his flag: “We are the innovators, they are imitators.” Pretty bold talk for such a young band, but by this point, in my opinion he’s earned the right to say it.
Apparently Jim James -- the singer, the songwriter, and pretty much the soul of the band -- fell off a stage in 2008 and the band hasn't performed much since. He has, however, recently released an album with Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis, and M. Ward (more on him soon), performing as the Monsters of Folk. I like the track or two I've heard; I also like the bits I've heard of James' solo EP of George Harrison covers, Tribute To, which is a benefit for Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary. But already I'm torn, wistfully hoping My Morning Jacket will survive too. And to think, six months ago I made gagging noises whenever anybody mentioned this band to me. Well, anybody can make a mistake!