My Morning Jacket – Circuital (ATO/Spunk)

My Morning Jacket caught their fans off guard when they released their previous album, 2008’s Evil Urges. The band, led by Jim James, had been known for their long-haired Southern rock, with James’ echo-laden vocals recalling Neil Young leading Crazy Horse. They became a band to be reckoned with, especially live. Their performance at the 2009 Big Day Out in Auckland was one of the most powerful and uplifting live experiences I’ve had at the BDO.

Circuital finds the band revisiting their “classic” sound, while also taking more musical chances. It was recorded in an old school gymnasium in their hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, on analogue tape (let’s face it, every band seems to have reverted back to tape) and have signed on co-producer Tucker Martine, who also produces The Decemberists. The result is a warmer, organic sound…very much a throwback to the 1970s.

The album opens with Victory Dance, a spooky sounding number that picks up power as it rolls along. It crosses into prog-rock territory as it builds up to a noisy crescendo at its end. The trailing feedback segues into the seven-minute title track. It’s a real tour de force, starting quietly with acoustic guitars before exploding to electric riffs and tinkling keyboards. There are plenty of dynamics to this epic tune and a fine guitar solo along the way.

James has stated that Circuital is meant to be a more cohesive album than Evil Urges. Maybe it is, but it certainly doesn’t sound the same from track to track. Wonder (The Way I Feel) is a gentle, pastoral acoustic folk song, with James singing about getting away from it all. Meanwhile, Outta My System begins with an ominous bass line and James singing “they told me not to smoke drugs, but I wouldn’t listen…”. It’s a memorable tune about youthful antics vs. maturity.

The album’s biggest surprise comes next. Holdin’ On To Black Metal comes on with a soulful horn section a big guitar riff and a huge-sounding children’s choir. In the middle comes a fuzzed-out guitar solo. It’s wild and catchy as hell. First Light follows built around a bass line stolen from The Beatles’ Rain and one of James’ best vocal performances. Following the bouncy alt-country of You Wanna Freak Out comes the self-explanatory Slow Slow Tune and finally the wistful Movin’ Away with its child-like piano motif.

Having only listened to the album a few times, it seems like one of those that will reveal more and more with each listen. James and the band are managing to challenge themselves as musicians and songwriters while still keeping the faithful happy. It’s a tough line to walk, but I think they’ve done it here.

Marty Duda

Click here to listen to First Light from Circuital