Focusing on music from its then-new “Evil Urges” album (2008), My Morning Jacket delivers an excellent performance captured in intimate fashion for Nigel Godrich’s “From the Basement” series.
Jim James will probably never be mistaken for a Wall Street banker. Sporting a woodsy beard and long mane of curly hair, the My Morning Jacket singer-guitarist looks like his band sounds. At least he did at the onset. Emerging at the dawn of the 21st Century amid a period devoid of music featuring driving guitars and golden harmonies, the Kentucky-based group embraced its heritage with open arms. Soaked in reverb and steeped in ragged country, its early songs spoke with a Southern accent that gave the band a distinct identity.
Initially lumped under the catch-all “indie rock” umbrella, My Morning Jacket turned its provincial roots into an advantage. The band’s concerts found James scampering across the stage — wielding his guitar at his waist akin to how a witch might hold a broom before taking flight — and brimming with an energy, freedom and skill many contemporaries lacked. Though the indie tag has often been a cover for amateur musicianship, My Morning Jacket could really play. James also possessed a knack for penning songs with melodies that conjured a bygone era.
The industry took notice. My Morning Jacket signed a major-label deal and released “It Still Moves” in 2003, boosting its profile and turning into a touring powerhouse. James and company didn’t sit idle. In step with boundary pushers such as Radiohead and the Flaming Lips, the quintet leaned in psychedelic directions on “Z” (2005) even as it maintained signature elements and mainstream accessibility. A double live album (“Okonos”) followed. Then things got weird.
Akin to hitters faced with tracking a mesmerizing pitch, listeners could determine the music’s general shape but were often puzzled at where songs went and how they got there.
Not content to repeat the past, My Morning Jacket floated the sonic equivalent of a knuckleball with “Evil Urges” (2008). The album explored far-ranging pastures that encompassed R&B, electronic pop, prog, funk and more. Akin to hitters faced with tracking a mesmerizing pitch, listeners could determine the music’s general shape but were often puzzled at where songs went and how they got there. Fans weren’t the only ones baffled; the record divided critics. Pitchfork, an early My Morning Jacket champion, panned it. Mojo, Uncut and the Guardian penned mostly dismissive reviews. Rolling Stone, Spin, Paste and Q thought otherwise and included it among their best albums of the year.
More than a decade on, “Evil Urges” survives as an engaging example of a band daring to challenge itself and its audience. Though a bit uneven, the LP has held up — and even gained in stature — over time. It also proved instructive to the band’s evolution, pointing My Morning Jacket toward ambitious routes it would pursue over the next decade. The risky creative moves allowed the group to escape easy categorization.
Corresponding degrees of freedom, diversity and risk-taking course through this excellent performance, filmed in 2008 for Nigel Godrich’s “From the Basement” series and solely focused on material from “Evil Urges.” Godrich’s savvy production offers on-the-stage-floor views of how songs come together and insight into the band members’ communication. James still won’t qualify for an endorsement deal with a shaving company, yet he and his crew appear more clean cut than in their nascent days. My Morning Jacket’s music, however, attests to a frontier wildness.
His face a picture of steely concentration, James sings the opening “Thank You Too!” with warm sincerity. The emotions are raw and naked; the delivery soothing and reassuring. James’ signature falsetto punctuates the song’s climax. Tight yet relaxed, My Morning Jacket uses tones and textures as building blocks. At various points, the producers capture Carl Broemel and his Gibson Les Paul guitar, equipped with a Bigsby tremolo vibrato. It accesses a seemingly infinite range of pitches and colors, which Broemel splashes on the laidback rhythms.
My Morning Jacket adheres to a similar atmospheric approach for the entire set. James grabs a Flying V guitar, basks in the whoosh of an organ and howls during the see-sawing “One Big Holiday” only to don a cape, trade the six-string for a hand-held mic and surrender to electronic burbling on “Touch Me I Want to Scream, Pt. 1.” For the tender “Librarian,” the band morphs into country-folk balladeers. Sighing pedal-steel lines and soft percussion expose observational lyrics that find James waxing on romance and simple pleasures.
By the time the quintet wraps with the neo-psychedelic “Touch Me I Want to Scream, Pt. 2” — complete with James generating eight-bit sounds from an ‘80s Omnichord OM-100 synthesizer — three members have dropped to their knees. Twisting knobs and pressing buttons, experimenting with frequencies and feedback, they are aural cosmonauts piloting a sonic ship first launched by curious freaks, funksters and explorers in the early 1970s. It orbits decades later, the controls available for anyone bold enough to take command.
My Morning Jacket “From the Basement” Setlist
Thank You Too!
One Big Holiday
Touch Me I Want to Scream, Pt. 1
Touch Me I Want to Scream, Pt. 2
Bob Gendron has been obsessing over music, albums and audio ever since he landed a job at an indie record store at age 13. A longtime contributor to the Chicago Tribune and the first Associate Editorial Director at The Coda Collection, he was also the longtime Music Editor at The Absolute Sound and performed the same role at TONEAudio. Gendron is the author of “Gentlemen” (Bloomsbury) and a coauthor of “Nirvana: The Complete Illustrated History” (Voyageur). His writing has also appeared in DownBeat, Rolling Stone, Revolver and other outlets.