The Louisville, Ky., quintet -- currently touring in support of its new release, Z -- is led by Jim "Jim James" Olliges, Jr., a bearded man who likes to layer his clear, twanged voice with heavy reverb, so that it echoes through his band's cacophony. He imbues these musicians' familiar, expertly rendered alt-country with a profound sense of melancholy, presenting the urban cowboy as dislocated troubadour. His calling card, "The Way That He Sings" from 2001's At Dawn, is something of a mission statement: "Why does my mind blow to bits every time they play that song?/ It's just the way that he sings/ Not the words that he says, or the band."
James' and his group's attempts at blowing minds have attracted many a fan these past few years, including Cameron Crowe, who cast the band in his Elizabethtown (continuing a tradition that began with Pearl Jam's appearance in the director's Seattle snapshot Singles), and the silver bullet of beers, Coors, which used "Mahgeetah" in a commercial. Critics sometimes point to MMJ's liberal borrowing from the past, particularly in James' warbling, which echoes that of the plaintive, flat-sounding Neil Young. Whether or not such judgments hold water, the band is just plain sick of them.
"It's impossible not to talk the way that we do or look the way that we do, just being who we are and being from Kentucky," says bassist Tom "Two Tone Tommy" Blankenship. But, he adds, "We listen to so much stuff, there's no one unifying band we all just sit down and listen to at the end of every night."
Such protests are typical -- after all, no one likes to be compared to someone else. But in a sense, Blankenship is right. Though My Morning Jacket's heritage is audible, the band's sound ultimately transcends its origins.
The band, as Blankenship tells it, is a veritable calico quilt, both the product of the varied Louisville music scene and James' own creativity. Growing up, the bassist played in hardcore and punk acts with "horrible" names like Misjudged and Lost Cause before discovering Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. Meanwhile, James shuffled through bands such as Hotel Roy and Month of Sundays.
Eventually, the frontman recorded several demos on his own and played the tapes for his friends, many of whom were also in bands. By then, Blankenship was in a group called Winter Death Club with guitarist Johnny Quaid, a cousin of James, whose family, according to Blankenship, owned "one of the biggest operating farms in Kentucky," and drummer J. Glenn. That trio eventually banded with James to form My Morning Jacket; keyboardist Danny Cash would join after the completion of the nascent troupe's first album.
My Morning Jacket issued The Tennessee Fire for Sacramento imprint Darla Records in 1999. (In late 2000, Chris "KC" Guetig replaced J. Glenn on drums.) In comparison to that tentative, murky-sounding debut, its follow-up, At Dawn, was a major step forward, cementing MMJ's image as atmospheric country-rockers and earning them a deal with ATO Records, Dave Matthews' boutique imprint with RCA. 2003's It Still Moves, which saw Patrick Callahan replacing Guetig, significantly expanded My Morning Jacket's audience, but sonically it was an extension of At Dawn.
Released on Oct. 4, Z represents a turning point. It's an album that finally finds the musicians growing out of the tropes that once defined them; gone are the animated recording sessions held inside the barn on Quaid's family farm, as well as the indulgent 10-minute ballads found on previous LPs.
Clocking in at less than 50 minutes, Z is more punchy and poppy than anything this band has produced before. It opens with "Wordless Chorus," a muted, starry excursion with doo-wop harmonies that wouldn't sound out of place on VH1's Top 20 Countdown. Then there's "Off the Record," the kind of faux-ska number that earned currency on late '80s rock radio; it's the album's first single.
For someone familiar with My Morning Jacket's guitar-driven sprawl, the succinct, easily digestible bits on Z may come as a shock. Its pleasures (which have already drawn raves from music journalists) are so immediate that they seem inauthentic. But the quality and charm of the songs are undeniable.
Blankenship says, however, that Z isn't the result of a conscious attempt at making a more accessible record. "It's more focused on rhythm and the drums and bass instead of just having a wall of guitars," he says. "Really, the only conscious effort that we made to make it different was to have a producer." Before, the band members helmed their own albums. This time around, they recruited veteran English producer John Leckie, who began his decades-long career as an engineer on '70s classics such as Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and who went on to work with everyone from Radiohead and the Stone Roses to Longwave and Starsailor.
Z is inspired by the personal and professional changes brought on by life after It Still Moves. A European tour in the fall of 2003 following that album's release was particularly difficult. Quaid and Cash were feeling homesick, and it only worsened matters when the band learned that a close friend of theirs had committed suicide. "It was just a weird time," says Blankenship.
Quaid and Cash quit My Morning Jacket in January 2004, forcing the act to postpone an upcoming U.S. tour. Eventually the band settled on guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster. Z documents that transition period, as well as the newfound optimism that re-energized the group. "It's just us trying to find our way again after really being lost and not knowing whether we were going to be doing this anymore," says Blankenship.
Anyone in need of more evidence that this band is alive and well should consider attending one of their shows at the Fillmore, where the group will be filming its sets for a planned concert DVD. In a press release, James writes, "We want to encourage attendees to dress up in costumes (preferably 'faeries and wizards and goblins') or olde timey Victorian ballroom dancing attire -- big frilly skirts and top hats and tuxedos and such."