Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Soul sides

My Morning Jacket
Evil Urges
Score: 10

A brave step into uncertain territory, Evil Urges proves, first and foremost, that Jim James can sound great even without the echo that has swathed and reinforced his voice on previous albums. It also proves that My Morning Jacket have legs beyond their rollicking jams, delivering song after song of accessible, well-crafted, traditionally styled rock.

From the get-go, Evil Urges indicates that it will be a far different listen than its predecessors. The soul style that James dabbled in on 2005's Z now takes center stage, with him heavily favoring his upper register on the first three songs. The change is all the more drastic because his voice is no longer echo-drenched. It's odd to hear to his notes without sustain; it gives a feeling of directness, and it might be an attempt to achieve a new level of intimacy, putting the listener in the room with James rather than on the other end of a grain silo. On the ballad "Thank You Too!," James tells a loved one, "you really saw my naked heart / you really brought out the 'naked' part." He could just as easily have been talking about his voice.

"Highly Suspicious" shows us another side. Like a kid who suddenly discovers he can holler, James has a ball with his falsetto, swooping around and climbing. He even cackles, the closest approximation being the witch in Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall." And though James' vocals in the title track suggest Smokey Robinson, Jackson might be the nearest influence to James' burgeoning soul-man side (go back and listen to him "hoo!" on Z's "Wordless Chorus").

That opening trio --- "Evil Urges," "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream Pt. 1" and "Highly Suspicious" --- is the biggest surprise, but My Morning Jacket don't shift into their standard structure until later; "I'm Amazed" seems like a long-lost Lynyrd Skynyrd cousin, and "Thank You Too!" covets the power ballads of the '70s. "Sec Walkin," the first to resemble their past work, breaks out the Rhodes for a droopy excursion. But about when James' sentiment nears moping, on the hunt for "eyes that hypnotize and sparkle," a voice behind him repeats "sparkle" and begins to shadow him or harmonize with him periodically.

It's one of the signs on Evil Urges that the role of James' bandmates is expanding. Not only do bassist Two-Tone Tommy, drummer Patrick Hallahan, guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster play their parts masterfully and help shape James' songs, but Koster and Broemel also lay down backing vocals on more than a few cuts. Those vary from the bright additions to "Sec Walkin" to an affected, comical gruffness on "Highly Suspicious" to more-traditional accompaniment elsewhere. This development increases My Morning Jacket's repertoire and opens the door to even more options in the future.

So where will they head next? One possibility could be greater experimentation with song structures and narrative threads, as hinted by "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream Pt. 1" and its companion piece. Both concern a craving for human connection, and the second side of the song proceeds past the longing glances of the first, to a precipice. Despite the song being about the thrill of new love, James isn't so much basking in it as he is hanging on for dear life. The chorus is a dual expression of joy and fear: "Ohhhhhhhh! This feeling, it is wonderful! Don't you ever turn it ahh-a-ahh-a-ahhhhhff!"

If his love was guaranteed, there'd be no need to plead for it.

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