In a perfect world, bios would be unnecessary. Instead of those often peculiar, occasionally vaguely helpful written pieces purporting to tell a band’s story, a clear sense of the way things actually happened, which often doesn’t fit into neat story-size chunks, might emerge.
My Morning Jacket, for example, lost in their line-up a while back their life-long friends Johnny Quaid and Danny Cash. The two original members just decided they didn’t want to spend their time working in a band heavily on the road. The remaining members — singer-guitarist and songwriter Jim James, bassist Two-Tone Tommy, and drummer Patrick Hallahan — didn’t really know which direction to proceed: to go on as a three-piece, to look for new members, or to stop altogether…but some force kept urging them on, so they started looking around for new members. They found keyboardist Bo Koster, and guitarist Carl Broemel. My Morning Jacket talked to some other people, but the band kept coming back to Koster and Broemel, the first two musicians they met with. Things really flowed there. “We loved them immediately,” says James. “It was like the band was its own force, wanting itself to go on, even down to finding these two people.”
For the new My Morning Jacket line-up, dreaming and changing up their music proved tonic; they worked, in a collaboration that turned out to be wholly positive, with the veteran English producer John Leckie. “We wanted to make a record that grooved and swung,” James says, “but wasn’t trying to imitate classic soul. We wanted to keep an aspect of what we’d always done, but also make something you could dance to or listen to while driving home. Hip-hop and soul music are unifying people right now. I wanted to incorporate that into our music; to make this really sad, mysterious kind of dance music, something that really got into your butt, but also really got into your head and made you think.”
My Morning Jacket hail from the city of Louisville, Kentucky, an odd metro-suburban mix of stark industry and fine thoroughbreds and rock and roll fevers. “It’s a place with no labels,” James says. “It’s not the South, it’s not Chicago, and you don’t think of it as you think of New York or LA. It has some Southern romanticism to it, but also a Northern progressivism, this weird urban island in the middle of the state of Kentucky that has always provided a fertile, often dark, bed. For us, Louisville and the surrounding areas are the center of massive creativity and massive weirdness. The place has its flaws: You move away, but you’re always going to come back.”
For their ‘Z’ sessions, My Morning Jacket did indeed, for the first time, move away. Instead of making music as was their custom in the country outside Louisville, they traveled to upstate New York’s Allaire Studios. “We find our bearings more in a rural, removed setting,” Hallahan says. “Allaire was the perfect answer to that, being isolated on a Catskills mountain.” And so everything started to click with regard to the unique Louisville soul music that began to flow through the band. “Before, we had some unexpressed anger and frustration,” says Two-Tone Tommy. “Now we had figured out it doesn’t always have to be that way. Now we could celebrate that things were changing.”
‘Z’ is a 10-song collection that encompasses carefully wrought ballads such as “Wordless Chorus” and “Knot Comes Loose,” multi-genre jams such as “Off the Record,” silvery country-soul such as “Lay Low,” and high-energy rockers such as “Anytime” and “What a Wonderful Man.” Deliberately, emotionally, majestically, the collection concludes with “Dondante,” a seven-minute piece that weaves together several singular Louisville-like blends of creativity and engagement, blues and elations. “Most of the songs,” Broemel says, “are based on the sound of Jim’s voice.” Uncommonly passionate and blooming, it’s the sound of someone who, in Leckie’s words, “is always singing a duet with his reverb, which is the sixth member of the band.” Broemel continues: “But I think we were also looking more rhythmically for ideas as the core of the songs, and maybe not having huge guitars on every song.”
For James, the music on ‘Z’ continues My Morning Jacket’s earliest goals.
“I’ve always wanted the music — the rhythms, the strings, the guitar solos, everything — to be just as important as the words. I’ve never wanted one thing to be the most important ingredient. I like to think of the band as something that’s not really about any one person or any one thing. It’s just this weird cloud that is all-encompassing in terms of what we all do to it.”
The deep mysteries of this music — of sadness and happiness, of despondency and uplift, of Louisville, of reverb — extend far into the past, Leckie thinks. “It’s only in the last 100 years that we’ve had recorded music,” he says. “Before that, the only time you experienced music was when it was a cloud, when it was in the present. Once it was finished being played, the music was gone, like a cloud. My Morning Jacket retains some of that pre-recorded vibe. ‘What a Wonderful Man’ is like an explosion; ‘Into the Woods’ is like a mist; ‘Anytime’ is like a fast-moving cloud; ‘Gideon’ is a cloud that builds up. ‘Dondante’ is like a series of clouds above a requiem.”
And ‘Z’ is, of course, for My Morning Jacket, not the end of the story.
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