My Morning Jacket has been a rising star in music since the band’s inception in 1998. Although their debut, The Tennessee Fire, was a landscape of spacious folk and a gorgeous slice of americana, as was the follow-up, At Dawn, My Morning Jacket broke through to a wide audience with 2003’s It Still Moves. The album was coated in a beer batter of southern rock – fried with bits of sweet, lush vocals that carried their previous work. Then came 2004’s Acoustic Citsuoca: Live at the Startime Pavilion, a live EP of a Jim James solo performance. Merely five songs, Acoustic Citsuoca solidified the reason why My Morning Jacket was so appealing – not their southern rock rumbles, psychedelic ramblings, or roomy, melodic ripples, but Jim James’ remarkably powerful, yet intimately welcoming voice. In 2006, the band released Z, an inspiring mélange of folk, rock, R&B, blues, and pop music. Z was a heartfelt speech, a call to arms – it was a statement. It showed the band experimenting with sounds that distinguished them from every other rock band, including My Morning Jacket itself. But, more importantly, in all of its exploration, Z kept on track, keeping Jim James’ vocals at the head of the pack. The album catapulted My Morning Jacket to headlining status, finding mainstream success, but maintaining its jam band-type fanbase. Now we reach 2008 and face Evil Urges, the band’s fifth full-length and, unfortunately, the exploration of Z has led My Morning Jacket over a cliff. But, lucky for us, we have Fleet Foxes.
There is certainly something to be admired about Evil Urges. Again, it is a bold statement in music, blending the flair of southern rock with a synthetic, R&B panache, but is overall just too audacious. Despite the intriguing influences that pop up throughout the album, anywhere from Prince to Faith No More, Evil Urges fails to highlight My Morning Jacket’s best attribute, which is Jim James voice. Even in songs that slip back into My Morning Jacket’s signature southern sound, such as “Thank You Too” and “Two Halves,” James’ voice comes off weak. And, although the James has never been known for his lyrical wit, the lyrics in Evil Urges fall very flat. “I believe in a perfect world you’d rule your own universe. The only company you’d need would be in your brain.”
Fortunately, Sub Pop released Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut album, which takes the best parts of My Morning Jacket’s catalog, laces it with Beach Boys harmonies, and infuses it with the urgent, yet dreary sound of Fleetwood Mac. Fleet Foxes seems to be the album that My Morning Jacket would progress towards, one that is vocally robust and musically dusty. Robin Pecknold’s lead vocals even resemble Jim James’. The backing vocal harmonies emphasize the strength of Pecknold’s voice and the touches of reverb emulate the brawn of a southern gospel choir. In fact, “White Winter Hymnal” sounds like the chant of a Southern Baptist choir singing at the bank of a rushing river, watching a minister baptize a newborn in the river. The album treads the waters of southern folk-rock on a ship made from the sunshine pop of the Beach Boys and The Zombies. It is a sandy beach along the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is the summit of the Smoky Mountains breaking the surface of the Pacific Ocean.
If it is the fear of being pigeonholed that forced Jim James to make Evil Urges, such fear led him into an inescapable corner. Rather than running from his southern inclinations, James should have embraced them, as Fleet Foxes did. Fleet Foxes is the album that My Morning Jacket fans wanted to hear, if not deserved to hear, as it accents Pecknold’s gorgeous voice and maintains a folk quality that is as pleasing as Neil Young’s Harvest. Sadly, My Morning Jacket’s exploration on Evil Urges is similar to Neil Young’s exploration on Trans, in which he attempted to navigate the murky waters of innovation, but got lost in the fog. “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Part 2” is the album’s only upside as it appropriately accents Jim James’ voice along a forceful musical backdrop. But, if you’re looking for a full remedy, Fleet Foxes is your answer.
By Better Propaganda