We've been blessed with another exceptional column by guest writer and aficionado Kellen O'Brien. Let's not belabor with a long intro... The album is streaming at the bottom of the review. Get to it! - Nate
Kellen O'Brien: I took an early evening stroll last week to Twist and Shout to purchase Circuital. After a cursory stroll through the stacks, I giddily walked home. One tangent about Twist and Shout: retro electronica is a new section in the stacks. When I returned to my apartment, I delighted in the process of tearing the plastic wrap from glossy cardboard. The album is sleek, and possesses a retro modern feel that only Wilco pulls off as equally. The vinyl also has a nice touch, mini fires that grace each label. My Morning Jacket has long been a band to buy on vinyl, and this album showed that they have a deep respect for vinyl purchasers.
My Morning Jacket promoted this album in a nearly perfect way. First, they teased fans with five weeks of free live tracks, culled from their career spanning Terminal 5 shows. This series finished with a download of the title track. Cobbled together, the Terminal 5 songs make for a strong live EP. Not long after releasing “Circuital”, the Jacket streamed the album’s most arresting tune, “Holding on to Black Metal.” ON the eve of the album release, “Victory Dance” surfaced. A cheeky move.
The band’s “Storyteller’s” appearance shined a light on Jim James the song writer. He wears so many hats, and wears them so well. James was candid, humorous, and emotional as he described the origin of particular songs. “Dondante” took on much added significance, as James’ explained that the song is a tribute to a deceased friend conceived immediately after the dream described in the lyrics.
With the augmentation of these promotional tools and my deep fandom of the band, my listening to the album took on a deeper and more nuanced understanding than for ordinary records. I have always appreciated the Jacket most as a live force. Seeing a performance nearly a decade ago was my first introduction to the band and I have continued to see them on a nearly annual basis. However, I also frequently listen to their studio albums, at least chunks of them. My favorite chunks are the opening halves of It Still Moves and Z. Their songs dot many of my playlists, ranging from “Librarian” to “Master Plan.” They are one of my favorite bands and, as much as a music fan can be, I am proud of them.
The Jacket has cemented itself as this era’s festival stalwart. I would venture that in the next five years they will headline a night at one of the major four festivals. Of course, they are most closely linked with Bonnaroo. I witnessed 2004’s “Welcome to the Thunderdome” performance, 2005’s puppet conducted performance, and 2008’s epic midnight until 4 AM set that included Kirk Hammett on “One Big Holiday,” a suite of R&B covers, and a persistent, cold, dreary rain. This year they pre-headline Saturday during an envy producing run of music starting with Florence and the Machine, Jacket, then Arcade Fire, with Big Boi, Ratatat, Bassnectar and Pretty Lights providing late night. Yes please! Another Wilco connection: Wilco pre-headlined my favorite night of Bonnaroo ever: Saturday 2009: Wilco, The Boss, NIN, MGMT. The Jacket certainly has the tuneage to perform an 8:30-midnight set, but they need a higher peak to have the popular appeal of Pearl Jam or Arcade Fire.
That said, The Jacket is a live powerhouse, transcendent—I have seen them eight times over the last nine years, in venues enormous and tiny. They have played five of my favorite 30 or so concerts. When I listen to them, I imagine how each of their songs will fit in their live repertoire.
After careful consideration then, I have decided that there are three types of songs on this album:
“Out of My System” is one of the happiest, most exuberant Jacket tracks. It is also one of their few anthems. The twinkling keyboards and summer montage bass line build up and tickle the toes of euphoria. After several listens, this has become my favorite song on the album, a feel good summer powerhouse that washes down like Somersault Ale.
“Victory Dance” will stalk the open air with threatening keyboards and bass lines that darken the tune’s atmospheric clouds. The last thirty seconds of the song unleash the cathartic thunderstorm of menacing guitar, rumbling drums, and funneling wails.
One of the great things about the Jacket is how easily they can morph from a five-piece concert act into a multi-faceted extravaganza. It is unfortunate “Holding onto Black Metal” did not exist for Bonnaroo 2008, when a horn section joined the Jacket for a suite of 70s soul and R&B. Even without accouterment, the groovy bass line will still float just beneath the surface like a Great White shark on the prowl.
Slow Dance in the Breeze
“First Light” could be a burner, but I also think it’s a perfect opportunity to twist and shake with your chosen lady or gentleman. Continuing the chipper tone of “Outta My System,” the song rocks out fully at the end as directed by Carl Broemel’s fuzzy guitar solo. Broemel has certainly taken a step forward on this album. His guitar work no longer sits in the shadow of its inspirations; for the first time, Broemel’s riffs and solos are completely his own.
“Circuital” sounds like one of the bands the Jacket paved the way for. Local Natives, Band of Horses, and Fleet Foxes come most directly to mind, although there are many others. (I love it when neophyte’s tell me that MMJ reminds them of Fleet Foxes.) However, the tune slowly builds a solid foreground groove with interesting sounds bubbling beneath the surface.
“Wonderful” recalls ‘70s soft rock—an era not often considered an essential influence—by bringing out the tender side of James’ vocals. “Wonderful” is so tender that a James Taylor duet would be perfectly natural.
“Slow Slow Tune” is one of the few songs on the album that is a bit of retread. Hearkening back to “I Will Sing You Songs” My Morning Jacket has covered this ground before. Both songs are cradle-rocking lullabies that give the band’s sound a counter balance to the roaring fire in songs like “One Big Holiday” and “Mahgeetah.”
Time to Get a Beer
“Movin’ Away” recalls a better song, “Phone Went West,” than “Slow Slow Tune,” but following in its wake “Movin’ Away” is to slow to satisfactorily bring the album to an end.
“You Wanna Freak Out” is more than anything a chance to look for a lighter or replenish the stash of IPAs.
Every time I try to listen to “The Day is Coming” I zone out and don’t recognize sound again until “Wonderful” is nearly a third of the way in. It could just be me.
This incarnation of the Jacket has been together for seven years; it seems that after three albums of lineup upheaval, this one is complete. Their first two albums are both high in quality, but do not represent the complete sound that the Jacket now possesses. Drummer Patrick Hallahan is the group’s most underrated member. Although his joining the band may not have been a causal factor in their ascendance, it more than coincided. Hallahan’s energy and force provide much of the engine of their live performance. His inclusion also marks my first run-in with the band.
Together with my two best friends, I took a weekend road-trip from the University of Wisconsin to Chicago for a concert and a Cubs game. We were joined at the show by our concert buddy Drew, and had purchased tickets on the affinity we had for openers Detachment Kit and Burning Brides. Detachment Kit played chaotic indie rock and Burning Brides contributed V2 Garage Rock. Like a lot of the Metro shows I attended in that era, patrons were sparse and it was easy to lock down a spot on the rail at the foot of the stage.
Predating the release of It Still Moves by four months, this show opened my eyes and made me an instant fan. I stood about ten feet from Jim James. Back then he hid his face behind long hair that hid his face almost completely. The bands rollicking Southern rock filled me with energy; I didn’t know the songs but I danced and head banged with them anyway. At the time, the Jacket provided a perfect bridge between hard rock, my high school persuasion, and jam band, which I listened to almost exclusively by the end of my college career. I was hooked, and have waited anxiously for all albums and concert opportunities ever since.
My excitement for Circuital increased as my view of their previous album crystallized. After careful consideration, I have determined that Evil Urges is best viewed as a set of EPs cobbled together to form an LP. I determined long ago that it is not a vinyl worthy album. Z and It Still Moves join Circuital as vinyl worthy, and At Dawn is likely the next purchase. In fact, At Dawn might prove to be the most vinyl worthy of all. But back to Evil Urges for a moment.
The songs should have been organized in the following EPs. Released in this arrangement in waves over a two-year period, these recordings would have a completely different reputation in music snob circles.
EP #1: Evil Urges, I’m Amazed, Two Halves, Aluminum Park, Remnants
EP #2: Touch Me I’m Going to Scream (Pt. 1), Thank You Too, Look at You, Sec Walking, Smokin’ from Shootin’.
Stand alone single: A Side - “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream (Pt. 2)” B Side - “Librarian”
Leave out “Highly Suspicious” as a live gem and don’t give the chance for Pitchfork to take swipes like, “Any discussion of this record has to start with the eye-poppingly annoying "Highly Suspicious", a loud thud ending any chance Urges had to match the group's previous records… I cringe thinking of an entire amphitheatre singing along to "peanut-butter pudding surprise" unless they're at a Ween show.” Three years later, I am still offended by the harshness of that comment. The sing along point is justly given, but this song has still become a live standout. At Bonnaroo 2008, “Highly Suspicious” allowed Jim James to showcase his talents at their most fully virtuosic. First, a high paced Joker-like “High” held for close to a minute followed instantly by an ear-ripping guitar solo. On record, this vocal becomes metallic and foreign; live it was testament to James’ other-worldly pipes. I still remember his silhouette as he held that note, arched skyward like a rejoicing werewolf.
More Pitchfork: “After listening to Urges, I wonder if My Morning Jacket might just be satisfied following in the footsteps of labelmates Dave Matthews Band: nestling into a comfortable niche and aiming for the Starbucks carousel with rootsy New Age romanticism.” To be fair, Pitchfork has had a lot of nice things to say about the Jacket. In fact, Evil Urges is the only Jacket album to receive a negative review (It Still Moves was given Best New Music status), but this criticism misses the mark with its broad accusation of selling out; what My Morning Jacket pushed towards on Evil Urges is Jim James’ mantra, which the review’s writer used to praise their earlier work: “don’t remain creatively static.” Evil Urges did not seek a new, latte-purchasing fan base or the complacent creative comfort many bands settle for a decade into their career—look for instance at Red Hot Chili Pepper’s creative stagnation after Californication or DMB. Instead it was an experiment in different sounds from disco to soul to soft rock. Jim James and company didn’t want to settle for retro modern Southern Rock; they wanted to take off their plaid shirts, cut their hair, and put on some new dancing shoes. They wanted to push their sound in a new direction, to challenge themselves, to defy fan expectations. To defeat stagnation, they took risks most bands would avoid if they had the standing My Morning Jacket had at that point in their history. Evil Urges is their most courageous album, and one of the most courageous albums of this past decade from any major band.
Don’t remain creatively static. This ethos lays much of the groundwork of Circuital, an album that is a return to the band’s core, but which also makes confident strides to expand the band’s sound. See: “Holdin’ Onto Black Metal” includes backup singers in the soul revue style they dove so deeply and divisively into on Urges. “Wonderful,” fits snugly in the Jacket repertoire after the palette expanding, and endlessly sexy “Librarian.” Now, Evil Urges doesn’t sound like a misstep, it sounds like a natural part of the My Morning Jacket sound. Taking risks has kept the band fresh and vital after the huge wave of success they road post-Moves, and, to be sure, it makes them one of 2011’s most essential bands.
Because Evil Urges must have been a process of taking new, somewhat awkward steps as a band, it tested the Jacket’s sound for a new sonic climate (year 2010, when niche became everything. I’m looking at you chillwave.) If not for this decision, the band might well have accepted a stagnant sound, and Circuital would be part of their falling action. Now, it seems like the beginning of a new ascent.
Circuital hints at continued transformation that began before Evil Urges. As a devout My Morning Jacket fan, I am content to let them progress as they will, especially if they continue to deliver the goods in concert. However, this album brightens my view of their future relevancy. It’s clear the band decided their emo-Allman Brothers sound expired sometime during It Still Moves and Z. They, especially Jim, have explored several avenues since then, and it makes sense that Circuital doesn’t sound completely settled. They are still growing as a band. My Morning Jacket is not a flashy new outfit you hustle to a thrift store after one summer, they are your favorite hoodie from college that has worn well and will be worn well for a while yet to come.