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My Morning Jacket bring it all back home with Circuital

My Morning Jacket, Circuital (Released May 31, 2011 on ATO Records)

The idea behind the title Circuital is to, not too implicitly, define a rebirth (renaissance, if you will) of My Morning Jacket. Prolific frontman Jim James (Yim Yames? Who is he, P. Diddy?) belts out on the epic title track, “We’re just spinning around / Out on the circuits / Over the hollow grounds / Heading right back in the same place / That we started out,” which makes for a pretty handy metaphor for howthe band approached their sixth studio album.

In taking the super-clean studio production route for 2008’s Evil Urges, MMJ really betrayed what makes them, as a band, so entertaining. The live, stadium rock sound the band has cultivated through their intense live show (they played for four hours at Bonnaroo in 2008) is what has endeared music fans to the band so greatly. So, for Circuital, the band took a much more organic route to recording: trading in the comforts of the studio for the gymnasium of a church in their hometown of Louisville, Ky. Played live on to 24-track tape is a stripped-down monster with roots in the bands origins but firmly set among their latter, more impressive, work.

Circuital is reminiscent of the first three MMJ albums (Tennessee Fire, At Dawn, It Still Moves), which were recorded in a grain silo, but reflects more of the eclectic musical tastes of its creators than those albums did. The trend among MMJ albums since It Still Moves to infuse the songs with soul, metal, classic rock, and anything else they feel like, is alive and well on this album. On Circuital MMJ continue to go beyond the alt-country moniker, exploring where the music can go and always tempting reviewers to label them as an experimental band.

Songs like “Holdin on to Black Metal” feature bone-crunching distorted guitar along side wah-wahhed horns and a chorus. It’s a combination that works because of the band’s willingness to have fun with it and their ability to play with one another. It also works because of James’ eccentric streak. Bo Koster told Rolling Stone that James described how he wanted the chorus to sound to the band by saying: “[It should sound] like we’re Cuban or Cambodian kids, and we’re wearing berets and we’re walking through an alley and we stumble upon this band, and it explodes into this crazy sing-along.” While that image may not be exactly what your mind conjures when listening to “Black Metal,” it is certainly one of the albums most intriguing and enjoyable songs.

Other songs on the album are much more straightforward with their imagery and instrumentation; “First Light” rocks with Stones influenced R&B; “You Wanna Freak Out” features a great guitar breakdown and plays most like a standard MMJ song; the waltz “Movin Away” closes the album perfectly and certainly emphasizes how George Harrison’s work has inspired James.

What is most present on the album, though, is the heat of the gym (which lacked air conditioning), the intimacy of the space and the talent of the artists. These are obvious throughout and amplified via wonderful co-production by Tucker Martine (Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens, Spoon) and James. Nothing on the album has the clinical clean tone of Evil Urges, rather, it drips with the humidity of the gym and the talent of the artists, which is much more entertaining.

Circuital is certainly the album MMJ wanted to make. After Evil Urges proved to be something of a disappointment, this album reestablishes the band as a force in the post-Z era. That is not to say it is another Z, however. The album has its blemishes: “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” and “Outta My System,” perhaps because they were written (and rejected) for the upcoming Muppets movie, kind of drag in the middle of the album. But as a whole, MMJ take a step forward by looking to the past. The “beginners mind” style of production James fell in love with while working on Monsters of Folk material does wonders for Circuital.

Stray Observations (because I couldn’t help it):

  • The piano arpeggios on “Circuital” are probably the prettiest, and my favorite, thing on the album.
  • I could swear the vocal harmonies on “The Day is Coming” are the same as the harmonies on Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose”
  • Most of guitarist Carl Broemel’s solos were improvised, just an interesting note about how the band kept things loose during recording
  • James howls on the opening song, “Victory Dance,” is his voice at its best.
  • “They told me not to smoke drugs, but I wouldn’t listen.” — I wonder why the Muppets rejected that?

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