Great article, thanks Sara!
My Morning Jacket, this is your life.
The latter-day guitar heroes are recapping their entire 15-year career — in public, and in chronological order.
The popular quintet, which will open for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Izod Center in East Rutherford on Tuesday, has never topped the Billboard charts with a single. Their full-length albums, however, are cherished by legions of adventurous alt-country and modern rock fans. “Evil Urges,” their 2008 album, broke into the Top 10, and listeners who have caught the band’s incendiary performances have bought up its back catalog.
In October, the Louisville rockers will be saying a lengthy thank-you to that following. They will play five not-quite-consecutive nights at Terminal 5 in Manhattan — each one dedicated to a different album. On Oct. 18, they will kick off the series with “The Tennessee Fire,” their debut. The next night, they’ll perform “At Dawn,” its echo-drenched, country-rock follow-up. My Morning Jacket takes a breather on Oct. 20 before plunging into “It Still Moves,” their commercial breakthrough, the next night. Oct. 22 highlights the hard-rocking, critically acclaimed “Z,” and “Evil Urges” gets the spotlight treatment on Oct. 23 to close the series.
Bands rarely do this kind of thing. But when they do, it usually pays aesthetic dividends. Playing an album from front to back in concert is a gutsy move — and a gesture of faith, too. It’s a wager that concertgoers care about more than the radio hits, and won’t head for the exits when the band performs its deep album cuts.
That faith comes easily to My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James. The songwriter and guitarist insists that reports of the rock album’s fall from relevance have been exaggerated.
“Nothing ever dies,” says James, reached by e-mail. “It’s simply reborn onto another plane. The album will live forever in the hearts of those who love the format. There are so many classic albums out there. Unless they find some way to completely wipe ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ or ‘What’s Goin’ On’ from the consciousness of humanity, the album will always endure.”
James’ dedication to the long-player has made his band a favorite among rockers who want to do more than simply listen and run. Each My Morning Jacket release has been distinct and coherent, and guided by forces that aren’t always in the band’s control. And like most enduring rock bands, they’ve never stood still.
“In the studio. I always have a vision of what I think I want,” says James, “but the albums evolve as the guys put their input in, and the spirits have their way. It becomes whatever it wants to become.”
Invariably, it becomes lengthy. The group loves to stretch out. “It Still Moves” included 10 songs that each clocked in at over five minutes. “Run Thru,” the album’s highlight, opens with a slow, aching guitar passage before combusting into a fuzzed-out space jam. Even “Z,” which stripped away the deep echo that the band had become famous for, concludes with the brooding eight-minute “Dondante.” “At Dawn,” the sophomore set, retained the pastoral feel of the debut, but voyaged into the mist for an hour and a quarter.
It all makes fantastic kindling for the band’s explosive live reinterpetations. As My Morning Jacket demonstrated on “Okonokos,” its first live set, even the quiet stuff can spark and catch fire when it’s struck hard enough. During the first nights at Terminal 5, the band will attempt to conjure the fragile spirit of the early recordings, but don’t be surprised if, say, the haunted “They Ran,” a gentle hallucination about a cigarette lighter thief, morphs into a monster.
“We will try to represent the intimate sound of ‘At Dawn’ and ‘Tennessee Fire’ to some extent,” says James, “but even back in the day, there was always a difference between our studio versions and our live versions.”
James points out that the lineup that made the first two albums isn’t the same as the one that currently plays under the My Morning Jacket name. Multi-instrumentalist Carl Broemel and synthesizer player Bo Koster have toughened the band’s approach and expanded its sonic palette. Their presence won’t turn the early material inside out, but it virtually guarantees new discoveries for concertgoers.
“They just bring a different energy and new emotion to the thing, different ghosts,” says the guitarist.
James, Broemel, Koster, bassist “Two Tone” Tommy Blankenship and drummer Patrick Hallahan will use the “Evil Urges” show — teasingly billed as “Evil Urges and Beyond” — to air new material that will be released on their sixth full-length. For the first time, James chose to make the album in his hometown. Staying in Louisville has provided its own comforts, and its own surprises, too.
“It’s been wild,” says the frontman. “We’ve never done one in the ‘Ville before. It’s been great, and it’s given us a different take on the town as well. We’re in a classic gymnasium, recording all live and bonding in the heat and in the absence of technology. No computers, no AC. Just us and God. God and us, I should say.”
At the Izod Center, they’ll be drawing inspiration from another source: a veteran band whose fusion of Southern rock, alternative country and stately Dylanesque folk preceded My Morning Jacket’s alchemy by more than two decades.
“It is a great honor for us,” says James, “and we’re thrilled to open the show for the Heartbreakers. Tom Petty is a treasure and a classic songwriter. Those guys have made so many undeniable records over the years.”
After the dates with the Heartbreakers, the band will stay on the road — but don’t look for My Morning Jacket in Arizona. James and the group have joined the Sound Strike boycott organized by musicians to protest the passage of the Sun Belt state’s SB 1070 immigration law. Bands skipping Arizona have been criticized for abandoning rock listeners in a controversy-scarred state that could probably use a party, but James insists that’s not the point.
“We just want to help make a statement and let people know how important this issue is, and that they need to get involved. We have no intention of hurting our fans in Arizona. We are so grateful to them, and we will find a constructive way to play there again soon — perhaps at a benefit for the cause.”
My Morning Jacket
Where and when: The Izod Center, East Rutherford, Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. (with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers). Terminal 5, 610 W. 56th St., New York, Oct. 18 (with Dungen), Oct. 19 (with Hacienda), Oct. 21 (with Elvis Perkins in Dearland), Oct. 22 (with Holly Miranda) and Oct. 23 (with Everest); all five shows at 7 p.m. How much: $49.50-$125 for Izod Center, call (201) 935-8500 or visit izodcenter.com. $41 in advance, $46 at the door for all Terminal 5 shows; call (212) 582-6600 or visit terminal5nyc.com.
These are the albums that My Morning Jacket will revisit during a five-night stint at Terminal 5 in Manhattan:
1. “The Tennessee Fire” (1999) Reverb-drenched and spooky, songs on “The Tennessee Fire” seemed to rise like wood smoke from the dark Kentucky hills. The band never got any more country than it did here, but even amid all the lap steel and mouth harp, there were clear signs of things to come: the psych-pop “Evelyn Is Not Real,” and epic closer “I Think I’m Going To Hell.” (Darla)
2. “At Dawn” (2001) Any trace of tentativeness in Jim James’ voice vanishes on “At Dawn.” Songs start pushing past the five-minute mark, the guitar solos become more intricate, the band plays harder, the psychedelic excursions get trippier. Essential cut: “If It Smashes Down,” the most sinister amusement park song since Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Wall of Death.” (Darla)
3. “It Still Moves” (2003) The band’s breakthrough set, and still its best-loved. Guitar freaks loved “Mahgeetah” and “Run Thru,” and rightly so — rarely in the sedate ’00s did a six-string titan rip into his solos with comparable verve. But the warm, approachable “One Big Holiday” got the most attention, and nearly gave the band its first radio hit. Somewhere up on a Stratocaster-shaped cloud, Duane Allman was smiling. (Ato)
4. “Z” (2005) Out with the reverb, in with the synthesizers, the space-rock and even a little left-field dub. “Z” sounded like the work of a different band and, in a sense, it was. New members Carl Broemel and Bo Koster pushed the band toward prog, and Ride and Radiohead producer John Leckie brightened the mixes. James even sang differently: “Off the Record” was nearly new-wave in its spikiness. (Ato)
5. “Evil Urges” (2008) As Fleet Foxes won critical accolades and scaled the Billboard charts with a sound not dissimilar to the one My Morning Jacket pioneered at the start of the decade, the James gang returned fire with the funky “Evil Urges,” its most experimental set yet. It’s tempting to say that the band has completed its transformation into a psych-pop unit, but My Morning Jacket is constantly evolving; where it goes next is anybody’s guess. (Ato)