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Published: 2005/10/14
by Holly Isbister

Z – My Morning Jacket

ATO Records 71067

For their fourth full-length album, My Morning Jacket lay down the foundations for some substantial changes in their direction in the studio, while remaining true to their roots. For one, the silo responsible for the gorgeous reverb of Jim James’ voice on At Dawn and It Still Moves, was abandoned, with James citing the creative energy there and in their other previous stomping grounds in Kentucky, had been used up. Instead, the band recorded Z at Allaire Studios in upstate New York, with English producer John Leckie (of Radiohead’s The Bends fame).

In addition, Z is a more concise, condensed creative statement than either It Still Moves or At Dawn. Clocking in at under 50 minutes, it’s their shortest album to date. Most tracks are less than five minutes long, with the exception of the album’s closer, “Dondante,” an eerie, crawling ballad that exhibits the juxtaposition of raw rock power and quiet subtlety that My Morning Jacket is so famous for. But on “Anything,” they set aside this talent to simply rock out. Moreover, “Anything” features Jim James’ new vocal style: the ranges are lower, and the tone more strained. The experiment works. His new, slightly awkward, tensed sound often adds the right amount of grit to the track.

“Lay Low” and “Off the Record” also rollick along, with the former touching on the romantic, and the latter the rebellious. “Off the Record” ends with hypnotic keys over spacey guitars producing a very sexy, mellow finale to an otherwise high-energy song. In contrast, “Lay Low” concludes with wailing guitar harmonies and crashing cymbals.

The sweetness of James’ songwriting is still audible on Z. “Knot Comes Loose” isn’t quite as breathtaking as “Golden” or “Hopefully” but James’ harmonies blend gracefully through the reverb as in his previous undertakings of this nature. In fact, the only jolting, bothersome moment of the album occurs at the beginning of “Into the Woods,” where a carnival motif is employed though we’re not sure for what purpose, other than to make the lyrics “a kitten on fire, a baby in a blender, both sound as sweet as a night of surrender” that much creepier.

Z proves that My Morning Jacket has truly hit their stride. While the intense reverb sound of James’ vocals on previous releases may be missed, the presence is still there in a more subtle way that works beautifully with the album’s tight compositions. For their fourth release, the band has truly risen to the challenge of developing fresh ideas but producing a sound that is still undeniably their own.

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