Following 2005's stellar album Z, My Morning Jacket continue to forge forward, cutting their own path through modern music. From the opening song, this is an unusual album that will not fail to surprise any existing fan. With Joe Chiccarelli at the controls, many of the band's trademark sounds have been left behind and many more contemporary influences have been brought in, signaling an attempt to widen the band's appeal with a more 'modern' sound. Although here 'modern' seems to mean the 70's and 80's - rather than 60's.
Opener Evil Urges expands on some of the disco sounds that started to appear on Z, but with Jim James reverb heavy sound on the back burner the song opts for an unrecognisable vocal style, perhaps best described as 'Bee-Gees'. Touch Me I'm Going To Scream seems to unsuccessfully re-work the melody from Z's far superiors It Beats 4U, but the most unusual is yet to come.
There was a never a more apt song title than Highly Suspicious, as while the paranoid tale of 'British Bobbies' pounding down the door attempts to deal with the modern Big Brother society it unintentionally reduces the listener to a baffled state - with the multi-tracked vocals of "Highly Suspicious!" hollering over the pounding funk beat. As a band, My Morning Jacket have often been compared to Neil Young - and it's a comparison that is still apt here, but unfortunately the album in question would be Neil Young's misfiiring electronic effort of the early 80's - Trans. Like that record, the attempt to connect with a 'modern' audience has produced a record more out of touch than ever before.
It's hard to tell the reasoning behind this move, as Z was an outstanding improvement on an already outstanding sound. It was a huge step forward and in many ways a departure from their previous records, but there was a solid core to it that maintained everything there was to like about the band. Perhaps that record was such a success that the band saw no restrictions on moving even further forwards with this release - or that they were held back with Z and it was a record that didn't pay off. Only time will tell.
It doesn't all miss the target of course and even title song Evil Urges has the makings of a great track, let down by the affected vocals. Once you're past the bewildering few openers things do settle down, with the more familiar sound of I'm Amazed, Thank You Too or Look At You, although admittedly some of these tracks would only rate as standard fare on an album like It Still Moves. The Librarian is a pleasant enough song, but the lyrics are so screamingly cringe-worthy ("Take off those glasses and let down your hair for me") that it's hard to see past them - to what presumeably isn't just about Jim James falling for the plain jane who showed him how to use the 'interweb', but is in fact advice to be 'happy with the inner you'. And not end up like Karen Carpenter. While the bands lyrics have never been deep or profound, there was always a sense of something beneath the surface and the emotional delivery of songs like The Bear or Gideon left the listener with plenty to think about.
Things do get back to the level you would expect from this band towards the end, with Remnants and the prog rock vibe of Touch Me I'm Going To Scream Part 2. Smokin From Shootin' is the album's one truly spectaucular track, but it's too little too late, leaving a spotty success rate that is hardly equal to the numerous highlights of previous albums. This unique band have taken their music in a new direction and while it is still certainly a unique sound I'm afraid to say that at the moment it's a direction I'm unlikley to follow them down. In many ways this is still a good record, with plenty to reccomend it over much of the junk that passes for music these days, but next to much of the band's other work it pales in comparison. Maybe I'm just not ready for it yet, and my kids are going to love it.... but 25 listens in it still isn't clicking and I can't help but feel disappointed.