Originally Published for Arts Fuse on July 6th 2011
My Morning Jacket has never been a band afraid to take risks, finding success by going their own eccentric way. Circuitalis the band’s sixth studio album since their inception in 1998, and while it’s bizarre at times and humorous at others, it is uniquely My Morning Jacket, and that’s a fine thing.
In an interview withSpin, chief songwriter, lead singer, and guitarist Jim James—known sometimes as Yim Yames—insists that as a band, “If you are going to go for it, fucking go for it. And don’t listen to anybody who tells you your music is too weird or that it’s not commercial enough. Listen to your inner voice and be ruthless about it.” Well, in Circuital, the 13-year-old band led by the 33-year-old James certainly went for it, proving that they are still an incredibly fresh voice in an increasingly stale music world.
The album starts on a strange note with the high-pitched chanting and spacey keys of “Victory Dance.” This bizarre beginning illustrates the band’s narcissistic motto: channeling the band’s visceral, inner voice won’t get it radio airplay. It may even cause fans to briefly question the band’s viability. But once the song has caught our attention (or irritation), James switches to his normal voice, and we are trapped in a glorious trance of steady high-hat, sinister guitar, and emerging deep bass. “Victory Dance” overpowers us: after distracting us with a quirky opening, it grabs hold of us and won’t let go until the hectic final measures let us free.
“Circuital” emerges from the ashes of the flame-out ending of “Victory Dance.” A breathy guitar starts the rebirth, and once again James’ soothing voice helps establish an aural stupor. Bright, acoustic guitar pops up before the return of the spacey trance. Then the acoustic guitar takes hold—this time supported by electric guitar and powerful drums—and the long track (7:19) elaborates on this alternation of dreamy and dynamic, climaxing with a perfectly placed, Wilco-esque guitar solo before we’re once again returned to the spacey terrain from whence we came.
“The Day Is Coming” continues Circuital’s momentum. Similar to “Victory Dance,” it starts with a chorus of odd vocals. However, these are catchier and are soon followed by the arrival of spastic guitar, pounding drums, and chord-tastic pianos. This song is emblematic of the hodge-podge of sounds that make this album so impressive.
After the powerful 1-2-3 punch of the album’s first songs, the momentum is relaxed with “Wonderful (The Way I Feel).” The acoustic guitar and string-driven track is a departure from the fast moving, full-to-the-brim, plugged-in songs that precede it. However, this simpler track provides a fine rest stop before the next few numbers.
The lyrically comical and slide-guitar-heavy “Outta My System” comes next. Like “Wonderful,” the song is influenced by sounds from the South, but this is a much more upbeat rocker. Funny enough, both these songs were originally penned for My Morning Jacket’s canceled gig as The Muppets’ backing band, Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem (think a nationwide tour similar to Gorillaz . . . but with The Muppets).
Up next is one of the album’s best moments, “Holdin’ on To Black Metal.” In an interview with Rolling Stone, keyboardist Bo Koster recalls James saying, “I want it to sound like we’re Cuban or Cambodian kids and we’re wearing berets and we’re walking through an alley and we stumble upon this band, and it explodes into this crazy singalong.” While that imagery may be a little too crowded to imagine, “Black Metal” is certainly an entertaining singalong—spiked with guitars and horns—between James and a female chorus. It’s not hard to imagine a line of musicians marching down a large avenue, converting onlookers to their ranks, the parade moving to the beat of this toe-tapping number. Whether this avenue is in Cuba or Cambodia doesn’t really matter, the spell is cast as the band dances and sings along. In fact, the song is so engaging that you almost forget it is more-than-heavily influenced by Yes’s “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”
The second half of the album, while it has good moments, does not live up to the absolute blast of the first. “First Light,” with it’s driving, fuzzy bass and “You Wanna Freak Out,” with its the see-saw melody, are frisky fun yet can’t reach the highs of the first three songs or “Black Metal.”
Interestingly, the fast-paced Circuital comes to an end with two take-their-time tracks. The title of the first, “Slow Slow Tune,” is self-explanatory (it’s meta-music)—the tune is lazy and drags its feet across the ground, the torpor occasionally punctuated by transfixing guitar solos. Finally, the mellow “Movin Away” brings the album to a gradual and peaceful end. What started with shrill, alien vocals ends in slide-guitar-accented humanity.
My Morning Jacket brings their famously energetic live act—sans Muppets—to the Bank of America Pavilion in Boston on August 14.