Ever since breaking out and being recognized as one of the best live rock and roll bands in America nearly seven years ago at the annual Bonnaroo Festival, My Morning Jacket has only gotten better and more epic with its live shows and albums. It has even scored major gigs opening for Pearl Jam and Tom Petty in recent years, and just appeared on VH1 Storytellers last Friday, June 3, 2011. And though you can never pinpoint its sound from album to album, one thing remains clear: it gets more adventurous with each release.
Whether it’s the reggae rock of “Off The Record” and soulful crooning by singer/guitarist Jim James on “Wordless Chorus” from 2005 CD Z, one of the Kentucky roots/southern/country rock band’s best albums (along with 2003’s It Still Moves), or his Prince-like falsettos on the amusing and rockin’ “Highly Suspicious” from 2008’s Evil Urges, there’s no telling what direction this band will go to next.
On its latest release, Circuital, we get to see the band take on black metal. If you think I’m kidding, you’re mostly right! Those dudes haven’t gone down that extreme path, but on lead radio single “Holdin’ On to Black Metal,” James sings about telling a grown-up to give it up. Musically, the tune sees MMJ once again do something fresh but still catchy and amusing, with the kiddie choir voices (a.k.a. the “black metal girls”) helping Jim James—who also goes by his alter ego Yim Yames—during the chorus sections.
Delicate arpeggios on guitars and keys begin the first epic tune on the new record, the title track. It starts out slow, but soon after James strums those chords on his capo-aided acoustic guitar, the rest of the band, including ace second (electric) guitarist Carl Broemel, joins in on this, an instant classic.
The highlight of Circuital for me is “You Wanna Freak Out,” with its tambourine-supported mid-tempo groove, pedal steel guitar (by Broemel) and the bright, circular guitar riff—meaning that it starts with an ascending melodic run and finishes with a descending one—that truly colors the tune’s atmosphere during the verses.
The gentle, folk/country-esque and strings-attached song “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” is the most memorable pure acoustic number Jim James has written since “Golden” from It Still Moves. It may not top it or turn into the concert staple that “Golden” is in future tours for future albums, but it’s a rather straight-forward and soft delight.
It doesn’t all work, however. The Fender Rhodes-led “Victory Dance” takes too long to develop and when the crescendo is reached, it’s not all that memorable, and neither is “Slow, Slow Tune.” But at least with the latter track, you know going into it what the pace is.
Every My Morning Jacket album has its terrific moments and this one is no different. With Circuital, there are just 10 tracks to work with and most of them are worth digging, depending on your taste. I miss the more guitar-heavy MMJ and so didn’t enjoy this one as much as previous MMJ albums (including their aforementioned three previous albums). But that doesn’t mean other fans will feel the same way. Therefore, this new one is a keeper and should definitely find a home with many MMJ fans.