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New album appeals to new listeners with unique style

Observer Scene | Thursday, October 13, 2005

At the end of the Greek movie “Z,” the first thing the government banned was “long hair on males.” Jim James, lead singer of My Morning Jacket, would have been burned at the stake for his hippie pirate style.

Just like the cult film, his band’s new album, “Z,” successfully attracts newcomers to the indie genre, as well as maintains fans of the band’s previous material.

When alt-country is looked up in the dictionary, Louisville’s My Morning Jacket can be found (not Wilco). The entry’s definition included melodic vocals that held long notes, slow and detailed tunes, a raw, authentic sound and an Aspen Edge beer advertisement credit (for their single “Mahgeetah”).

The biggest change from “It Still Moves,” Jacket’s last album, to “Z” might be in the faster tempo and less repetition in the songwriting. The first four songs of “Z” are a total of 14 minutes, compared to 22 minutes for the first four songs on “It Still Moves.”

The opening track “Wordless Chorus” sounds more like a Flaming Lips cover than anything My Morning Jacket has released before. Electronic synth pulses keep the beat as James’ familiar and warm voice enters. The song climaxes with James’ wild yet melodic howls.

“It Beats 4 U” relies on roll and rim percussion as well as a chorus that resembles a more conventional, mainstream alt-rock artists like Abandoned Pools or Our Lady Peace. James holds his notes in the chorus and bridge just like on previous songs “Masterplan” and “Run Thru” from “It Still Moves.”

“Gideon” is the first radio single off “Z” and sounds more like past Jacket material. Arpeggios on clean electric guitar cushioned by a pleasant kick drum and repetitive bass line, as well as the anthemic ringing major chords open the track as James holds long notes in both the verse and chorus. The restrained, innocent vocals are similar to vocal lines from “It Still Moves.”

Immediately after “Gideon,” the band gets its second wind with the fun and energetic “What a Wonderful Man.” The song is just over two minutes, unusually short for a My Morning Jacket tune. The sound is straight classic rock. “What a Wonderful Man” would fit on any Who or Alice Cooper record. Sing-along vocals, playful piano, sincere guitar and a memorable chorus make the track a highlight.

But James and company make up for the time on the next two tracks, “Off the Record” and “Into the Woods.” He opens “Off the Record” with an establishing guitar introduction. The verses’ rhythmic strumming combined with James’ jubilant screaming actually sound punk influenced – strange for a band whose lead singer is more likely to dress like a pirate, cowboy or hermit for Halloween than a skater.

The only disappointment with the album is that it is top heavy. The first five songs are strong and catchy. The rest of the album lacks a “Run Thru” or “Just One Thing.” Listeners will be better off repeating the first half than continuing on with the rest.

My Morning Jacket still employs the unusual recording style that makes the album sound like it was written in a log cabin – vocals echo distantly and songwriting invokes country western influences with major chord progressions and gentle, personal melodies.

The band is definitely evolving, however, and the music features more variety than previous records.