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My Morning Jacket moves beyond rock & roll tradition with “Evil Urges”

James DuBray | Monday, September 1, 2008

Jim James croons “It ain’t evil baby if it ain’t hurtin’ anybody” on the opening title track of My Morning Jacket’s latest release, “Evil Urges.” It’s unclear as to whether or not those at Our Lady’s University would say the same about the lyrics of James’ most recent album.

“Evil Urges” focuses in part on the divisiveness of religion, while also intimately delving into James’ sexual yearnings, which include a Carpenters-loving, made-for-Skinamax librarian. “Evil Urges” is My Morning Jacket’s fifth studio album, and their third with ATO Records, which also includes artists like Radiohead, Mike Doughty and Ben Kweller.

James commented before the release of “Evil Urges.” That the band’s goal was to abandon traditional rock and roll sounds. This goal is certainly realized as My Morning Jacket moves from funk-inspired soul rock to an even more surprising direction, early 90s metal, in the span of two songs. On “Evil Urges,” My Morning Jacket combats a commonly offered criticism that indie rock is all too white. The influences are broad, but the most important tend to be black artists: shades of Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, and Prince are heard throughout.

The defining factor of the album is its musical diversity. Whether one believes that the album is still coherent determines how most critics have responded to this ambitious record. “Evil Urges” is a significant leap forward for MMJ, and for the first time brings the energy of their lauded live sets to a studio album.

The standout tracks on “Evil Urges” are “Smokin’ from Shootin’,” along with “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 1” and “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2,” which comprise over 12 minutes in total. These three tracks define a new sound, which loosely has the feeling of rhythm-based progressive rock. Imagine Roger Waters being supplanted by Marvin Gaye – sounds odd, but the end product is brilliant as James’ falsetto moans, “I can tell by the sounds you make that you are pleased” over danceable, epic rock.

But My Morning Jacket does not completely leave its rock and roll roots behind. The fourth tune continues the bevy of surprises with the “Sweet Emotion”-esque, radio-friendly “I’m Amazed.” The album also includes a pair of 3-in-the-morning, sweaty barroom, blackout guitar brawls with “Aluminum Park” and “Remnants,” which are sure to please the portion of MMJ’s fan base that was hoping to hear the “AC/DC meets the Allman Brothers” side of their favorite band.

The middle portion of “Evil Urges” takes another compelling turn, as Jim James proves that he can be just as sentimental and insightful as many of his indie rock group fronting peers (see Ben Gibbard, Conor Oberst, or Colin Meloy) with songs that speak of love and desire. On the two numbers that James probably wrote alone at night, with nothing but his bleeding heart and acoustic guitar, “Look at You” and “Thank You Too,” James swoons the object of his affection as a “glowing example of peace of glory,” who “really saw my naked heart/really brought out the naked part.” These tunes are separated by a 70s AM pop-infused ditty, “Sec Walkin'” in which James temporarily falls into a state of schizophrenia, revealing his belief that “demon eyes are watching everywhere.”

The most controversial song on the record, which has been a litmus test for feelings about “Evil Urges” as a whole, is the George Clinton-meets-Metallica tune, “Highly Suspicious.” The refrain is pure pop-metal, and follows James talking about a “peanut butter pudding surprise.”

Yet, as he sings the chorus, James is laughing with those who love his ambition and against those who will remain “highly suspicious” until they see how fun and energetic this song is live.

Before “Evil Urges,” My Morning Jacket was clearly in the conversation for the best live act in rock today. With this record, they have entered another elite group, one that has recently only included Wilco and Radiohead, for the most relevant rock group in the world.