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Published: 2011/07/26
by Tom Volk

My Morning Jacket
Circuital

ATO

Far away from the reverb drenched rock of their youth, Circuital, the sixth studio album from My Morning Jackets sees the band coming to terms with their maturity. It is sort of a coming of age album, draped in the 70’s rock idiom to which they owe so much of their sound to. While it’s hardly derivative it’s also hit or miss, an album where they hit a couple of out of the ballpark, 400 footers and then go down in three pitches on the next beat. To be clear My Morning Jacket is a gift to good , old fashioned American rock and roll, one of the few flag bearers left that can operate in that oeuvre without aping their forefathers or worse. They do nothing to damage that status on Circuital but the unevenness of it all leaves you wanting a little more from a band that has given a little more in the past.

“Victory Dance,” the albums opener, is jarring call to arms. Starting with a looping, psychedelic Kentucky fox hunting call, it gives way to the ominous pulse of Bo Koster’s electric piano. It’s an ode to self doubt that modulates into hope “Should I wet the ground with the sweat from my brow and believe my good work.” It builds to a fuzzy crescendo which finds our narrator hopeful of dancing the “Victory dance in the evenings setting sun.”

It’s one of the handful of aforementioned home runs that dot the albums 10 tracks. “Holdin on to Black Metal” is the grand slam, a track that must have been destined for the theme song slot on the next iteration of the James Bond series. Lined with bombastic horns and Jim James’s eerie falsetto it’s so infectious that it makes the nonsensical lyrics seem worthwhile. I have no idea what “getting sustenance from Lucifer’s beach” might ultimately symbolize, nor do I care. It’s a brilliant track. The title track isn’t far behind either, the staccato pulse that gives way to a strident acoustic guitar to frame James’s plaintive howl is smartly executed. It’s illustrative of the fact that, as they have matured in their career, all of the bells, whistles and reverb (oh the reverb) have been stripped away. Finding confidence in their unaltered voices has not damaged the sound one iota.

Neither has their steadfast pursuit of updating the sounds of the 70’s whether it is classic guitar rock, R&B or AM pop. “First Light” is to Strawberry Alarm Clock as “I Feel So Wonderful” is to Dan Fogelberg as “You Wanna Freakout” is to Paul McCartney. All are done in good spirit and not in a ripping off kind of way they are simply a reminder of those strains of the rock and roll tradition. It should be noted though that “I Feel So Wonderful,” a tune which has been floating around MMJ’s universe for a while now is so saccharine that it’s tough to know whether James is being tongue in cheek. Not left to any doubt in that department is the road warrior remembrance of “Outta My System,” a fun ditty sung to the survival of many tours travails.

Special praise is reserved for “Slow Slow Tune” the album’s unsung hero, which warps piercing lead guitar in between the hushed and unadorned vocals of James. It’s a slow motion knockout, the perfect counterpoint for the rave up of “Holdin onto Black Metal.”

Circuital is a wholly worthwhile listen but it lacks the transcendence of the best of MMJ’s work. It’s no crime, if you took baseball as an analogue the band would have an all time great season with its average from the album. Rock isn’t baseball though and the highs and lows of their latest release offer us only that, the good and the bad of MMJ’s maturation laid bare.

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