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THE CRITIC: My Morning Jacket Forging New Ground? Not Exactly.

by Rudy Klapper 21 June 2011 No Comment E-mail Rudy Klapper

My Morning Jacket – Circuital
ATO Records 2011
Rating: 5/10

“RIYL: getting reacquainted with your roots, music recorded in a church gymnasium, forging new ground while maintaining a distinct spirit.”

The above is loosely taken from a Circuital press release. In related news, marketing is one of the worst professions around. Circuital would have you believe that it’s a reaffirmation of the My Morning Jacket of old, of stellar alt-country gems like At Dawn or Z’s soaring experimental psychedelia, but Circuital is more a weak-kneed reminder of My Morning Jacket’s potential. It’s sort of like looking back on one’s misspent youth and remembering things to be a helluva better than they actually were, or, alternatively, listening back to 2008′s Evil Urges and thinking those funky side trips were actually a good idea. Circuital, luckily, doesn’t go quite as far off the rails as Evil Urges did, and it even starts off like everything is going to be okay. The one-two punch of “Victory Dance” and the title track are vintage MMJ, the former building itself up into a feedback soaked wail and the latter a plucked acoustic ditty that explodes into an invigorating display of power chords and Southern-fried guitar histrionics. When they’re on, their combination of old school rock musicianship and James’ distinctively powerful voice is hard to beat. It’s unfortunate, then, that much of this album finds the band unsure of just what they’re good at.

For a record that is supposed to be about the band rediscovering their identity, the rest of Circuital sounds like a hideously unsure thing, torn between sticking to the best of their folksy roots and playing up the worst of leader Jim James’ genre-of-the-day desires. “Outta My System” is a passable Beach Boys imitation, but with its elementary lyrics and go-nowhere structure, it merely serves to stick out like a sore thumb after the beautifully delicate ballad “Wonderful (The Way I Feel).” That’s nothing compared to “Holdin’ On To Black Metal,” a wantonly neon-lit big band number replete with Stax horns and a backup children’s choir. It calls to mind the worst excesses of Evil Urges and then some, a song so egregiously out of its depth that it throws the whole album out of whack. Placed as it is smack dab in the middle of Circuital makes it harder to ignore than most, and it’s a direct shot in the foot to a band that up until then had been well on their way to a record that, if not a true return to form, was at least mildly enjoyable.

It’s the kind of enjoyment distinctly separate from the kind one experienced when hearing the classic rock ‘n’ roll of It Still Moves’ “One Big Holiday” or Z’s ambitious opener “Wordless Chorus.” These are songs that float pleasantly, like the Beatles retro pop of “First Light,” or merely tease with hints of past successes (“You Wanna Freak Out”), songs that show the occasional glimpse of James’ songwriting talent but nothing more. Where previous MMJ albums have burnt out, usually in a haze of glorious guitar twists and turns, Circuital fades, first with a mushy track guaranteed to put everyone by the campfire asleep with “Slow Slow Tune” and then hammering away at the point (yet ever so softly) with the completely unremarkable “Movin’ Away.” It’s a light, pastoral tune that glides by on a melancholy piano line and the scenic pedal steel guitar that arcs over the melody, but it’s also completely, entirely safe and, dare I say it, boring. James’ Hallmarky lyrics (“possessed by your love / under the influence / and though there’s a new life line / I won’t forget the one I left behind”) don’t help matters, making the whole affair seem more like a man interested in creating some gently haunting sounds than saying anything real.

It drives home the point that My Morning Jacket has been making music for going on thirteen years now, and have appeared less like a band divining new inspiration from each other as time goes on and more like a group grasping for a sound that will make them relevant again. Better bands than MMJ are hooking onto the alt-country, folk scene that they brought screaming riffs and James’ howling falsetto to, including James’ own side projects. Circuital isn’t a bad album by any stretch, but in the context of My Morning Jacket’s body of work, it sounds hopelessly unsure of itself, content to create lesser shadows of past greats. A distinct spirit? Always. Forging new ground? Only in the minds of marketing execs.

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