critic’s pick 178

Louisville’s My Morning Jacket is a band that has always loved to playfully mutate its own musical image. Just when you think you have its early records pegged as the work of some retro ambient psychedelic stylist, the songs crank up the guitars and rock out in plain speaking fashion.

2005’s sublime Z (still the album to beat in the MMJ catalog) started the alterations by both embracing and deconstructing its reverb laced arrangements. Then 2008’s Evil Urges, MMJ’s first Top 10 hit, broke the mold in almost scattershot fashion. There were passages of brilliant groove-blasted psychedelia (such as the two-part Touch Me I’m Going to Scream) alongside bits of Prince-style pop-funk (the dubious Highly Suspicious) that still stand as major head scratchers.

In perhaps typical fashion, MMJ’s new and much ballyhooed Circuital , which was cut in a renovated Louisville church gymnasium, is a bit of all that. While almost streamlined in design when compared to Evil Urges, it presents the MMJ sound we know with a dimmer switch of sorts.

On the album opening Victory Dance, the feel is almost cinematic with a Zen-like percussion greeting, synth-driven strings that dash about with the epic flourish of a ‘60s Spaghetti Western and vocals and lyrics from chieftain Jim James that outline a sense of self-discovery with almost conversational clarity. But that bleeds right into Circuital‘s title tune, which places James back in an echo chamber before the band breaks into the kid of folk/country hoedown that would do early ‘70s Poco proud.

The rest of Circuital scours the musical terrain between those extremes. Wonderful (The Way I Feel) is all chamber-esque folk chill, a tune every bit as content as its title suggests. Later, Slow Slow Tune seems to bridge the ‘60s instrumental classic Sleepwalk, a touch of Tony Joe White’s Southern swamp soulfulness and a guitar line that leisurely winds it way through 1971-era Pink Floyd.

And then there are the extremes. The Day is Coming is world class MMJ, a serving of summery pop that patiently references the more melancholy side of Brian Wilson. Outta My System is even more surf-happy. You almost expect James to tear into Little Deuce Coupe until the lyrics of thuggish reformation start kicking in along with a sense of melodic urgency that builds as the song progresses.

Less arresting is Holdin’ on to Black Metal, an overreaching piece of pop dramatics with an out-of-step female chorus and orchestration. But even here, an appealing retro feel is attained (specifically, a kind of ‘70s TV crime show theme feel) which keeps Circuital on its toes and expectations of MMJ fans continually sharpened.

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