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Published: 2008/06/23
by Mike Greenhaus

Evil Urges – My Morning Jacket

ATO Records

My Morning Jacket moved from playing dingy Louisville bars to blogger-friendly festivals around the time many of the original third-wave jambands started fading into the ether, which means the group was quickly dubbed the undisputed torchbearer of classic guitar-rock. But, from the lo-fi experimentations that informed their debut The Tennessee Fire to the weird, not-quite jams that fill the group’s early EPs, Jim James and the members of My Morning Jacket were always experimentalists at heart. So it is somewhat fitting that at a time when every singer/songwriter sporting more than a 5 o’clock shadow has seemingly tailored his style to replicate the classic Jim James sound, My Morning Jacket has moved in the opposite direction, creating a dense, funky, psychedelic album that would fit more comfortably next to Flaming Lips or Prince than either At Dawn or It Still Moves.

Like 2005’s Z, Evil Urges finds the Kentucky-bred quintet masking its raw muscle with glitchy studio wizardry rather than acoustic guitars and reverb drenched vocals. In fact, James has tweaked his voice to such an extent that he now employs two microphones onstage. But, from start to finish, those classic My Morning touches are still there, buried beneath a thick layer of conscious fuzz, where one gets the sense James always felt they belonged. “For thoughtless folks like me and J, who'd pay, but can't afford, the finer things in life,” he mused on the key At Dawn cut “X-Mas Curtain.” “So we heist them all…”

In many ways, Evil Urges is actually two very different albums, conceptually split down the middle by, appropriately enough, the song “Two Halves.” For lack of a better term, the disc’s A-side is the more experimental portion, driven by studio gimmicks and longtime drummer Patrick Hallahan’s big, funky dance beats. From the opening notes of the infectious digital single “Evil Urges,” My Morning Jacket reintroduces itself as a band of high-tech studio-savvy experimentalists, with James cloaking his voice in the high pitched falsetto that defines Evil Urges’ first six tracks. The group then proceeds to contextualize the eclectic mix of covers its introduced since Z, nodding to Prince (the aforementioned “Evil Urges”), Lionel Richie (the soulful future wedding staple “Thank You Too!”) and even AC/DC (the odd, surprisingly agro freak-attack “Highly Suspicious,” perhaps the album’s only true dud). As James moves further and further away from his once signature reverb drenched vocals, his lyrics have also become more revelatory, simultaneously tackling national affairs and his own fears about loss and love. In that sense, though My Morning Jacket has always been something of a vehicle for his songs, Evil Urges is his most personal album, yet oddly enough his bandmates are more musically pronounced than ever before (also of note: the only songwriting credit James shares with his bandmates on the entire disc is the short breakdown jam section of the album’s title cut).

The album’s B-side is more traditional My Morning Jacket, filled with classic rock gems like and a few more gentle interludes like the soft, haunting “Librarian” — a vintage MMJ moment that could fit on Harvest were it not for a somewhat obtuse reference to “the interweb.” Elsewhere, James channels the spirit of Bruce Springsteen by way of the Boss’ prot Win Butler (“Aluminum Park”), nods to his country-rock roots (“Look at You”) and revels in some fine stoner shenanigans (the odd, four second “Her Majesty” epilogue “Good Intentions”). As Evil Urges winds down, My Morning Jacket kicks out its best post-jam yet, “Smokin from Shootin,” an unassuming rocker that slowly builds into emotional masterpiece. The song also contains some of the group’s best yearbook-ready lyrics, including the slightly rhetorical question, “do you live your life on the road, losing out on love, asking for nothing, running for something that isn’t there?”

Also split down the middle is Evil Urges’ signature moment, “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream,” which sits in two parts on either side of the album’s conceptual split. “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt.1” is a dreamy, Flaming Lips-like plea, both hopeful and romantic, while its companion frames an almost identical set of lyrics in an entirely different stylistic context. Thick, danceable and emotionally guarded, the seven-minute “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2,” is perhaps the most tangible proof yet that My Morning Jacket holds duel citizenship on either side of the great indie/jam divide.

So, in the end, while Evil Urges’ A-side was clearly sequenced upfront for a reason, it’s the record’s B-Side that packs the biggest punch and will either propel MMJ out of their comfortable critic’s corner or alienate a sizable portion of their original fans… or both. For even though Evil Urges is in many ways the group’s least accessible work since signing with ATO, it’s also tailored for the big, arena stages My Morning Jacket are finally ready to frequent on their own.

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