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My Morning Jacket

New Weird Soul

Jun 02, 2008 My Morning Jacket Photography by Crackerfarm Bookmark and Share

Like similarly inartful musical identifiers “pop” and “rock,” “soul” is a term that elicits an intuitive response but that, in reality, has been denuded of any real meaning for modern listeners. Was it really created by Ray Charles in the early 1950s when he translated the energy of gospel music into a secular context? If James Brown is the “Godfather of Soul,” are his songs the template? What about Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, possibly the two most definitive artists in the genre? Do they belong categorized beside Jamie Lidell and Amy Winehouse? What is the essence of soul music? My Morning Jacket asks some of these questions on their fifth studio album, Evil Urges.

“We wanted to try playing soul music and some different styles of funkier music and dancier music, just because that’s what we like to listen to as well,” explains Jim James, the vocalist and songwriter who charted the band’s course after a prolonged study of Curtis Mayfield, Sam Cooke, and Marvin Gaye. “That stuff has always been really important to me because I think it’s cool to see music that is really emotionally and spiritually fulfilling but that makes you want to move your body, too. I love folk music, but I think that’s something that it lacks. With some folk music—and maybe rock music, too—you can get into a real cerebral place, but you don’t necessarily want to physically move to it. You just want to sit in your bed and cry,” he laughs. “But I’ve been trying to get into music that resonates emotionally but with an uplifting power that also makes me want to jump around the apartment.”

For musicians who have spent much of their careers jumping around stages and off amplifiers, the differences between their trademark extended guitar solos and their new string-laden soul ballads are startling. Creating an unholy union of soaring falsetto croon, slippery space pop, and dual-lead guitar Southern rock, Evil Urges’ title track sets the pace for an album that will thrill fans of encyclopedic pop song cycles and baffle everybody who wanted another album of reverb-drenched guitar jams. Having flirted with reggae, dub, and synthesizers on 2005’s Z, here the band wades into altogether weirder waters, from an eight-minute disco-pop opus titled “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Part 2” to the ’70s AM radio country-pop of “Sec Walkin’.” No song is likely to elicit more confusion than “Highly Suspicious,” three minutes of oversexed Prince yelps, deranged laughter, and group chants over stabbing synth notes and flailing guitar solos. Boldly placed as the album’s third track, it’s a test—even a dare—for anyone who isn’t inclined to accept the new, weird My Morning Jacket.

“There’s also some elements of stuff like that in our other stuff,” James says incredulously, then laughs. “I had been to those places before in my own living space but not on a recorded album,” he says of his willingness to explore the upper register of his singing voice. “I go to those places all the time but not like that. It’s definitely a new style. We take it seriously, but we try to look at in a funny way, too. A song like ‘Highly Suspicious’ is serious, but there’s also a comedic element that we haven’t explored on previous albums so much. I like that, too.”

That said, not every song is an exercise in breaking new ground, as the harmony-drenched Southern-fried rock of “I’m Amazed” and the breezy power pop of “Two Halves” will feel like familiar handshakes for fans of the band. But Evil Urges is not about familiarity or comfort, as the band members intentionally put themselves in situations that required adaptation, from working with a string section to pulling themselves out of the relaxed pace of the country and putting themselves on a strict workaday schedule in New York City.

“It’s a daunting thing, because I’m pretty childlike in the way that I describe things to people,” James says humbly as he describes the process of writing string arrangements. “I’m not trained in music and I don’t read music. I just will send these emails to people with times, like, ‘From zero second to 30 seconds, I want this to happen, and from 30 seconds to 45 seconds, I want there to be silence.’ I just described it, and David Campbell [the father of Beck], the guy who wrote the strings, did a really good job in listening to what I said and adding his own flourishes and things….In choosing to come to New York and choosing to do a lot of the things that had made us uncomfortable, it was a different environment, and I feel that in the record. We wanted that to come through in a way where it hopefully made us tighter, because there were some songs that were written on a drum machine—a bunch of songs actually—but I didn’t want it to be a drum machine. I wanted it to be a real band, with drums and bass, and I feel like Patrick [Hallahan, drummer] and Tom [‘Two-Tone’ Tommy, bassist] played really well together and captured the essence of a tight drum machine that makes you want to dance but with the fluctuation where it’s still human and there’s still a little rock and roll to it.”

Despite the soulful overtones, there is actually a lot of rock and roll spirit at the heart of Evil Urges, even if it’s often of a more laidback variety than what we’ve come to expect from a band that formerly left stages in a fury of sweat and flying manes. But while the arrangements often result in songs that take more time to digest, James has never performed with more threadbare sincerity and tangible vulnerability. If earnestness and emotion are the definitive criteria for soul music, My Morning Jacket has made a soul album by any definition, one that isn’t quite as strange as it first appears.

“That’s one of our many goals—that people will listen to it and realize that it’s not as different as they first thought it was,” James says somewhat apologetically. “Maybe someone who came in initially thinking that they weren’t a big fan of soul might get turned on to something that’s a little more soul-natured, or someone that’s a big fan of rock but didn’t think they liked the softer side might get turned on to something else,” he says humbly, admitting that he hopes his fans will search for the unifying threads that connect all of their releases. “We all listen to everything, and, at the end of the day, we’ve never wanted to be just one kind of band.”


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