Album review: My Morning Jacket, “Circuital” (ATO)

June 1, 2011

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Much like the Kings of Leon, My Morning Jacket makes music designed for maximum arena bombast, quoting liberally from the most clichéd parts of the classic-rock canon, and thereby appealing to a lot of classic-rock fans who are deluding themselves into thinking that they’re digging “cool new music.”

 Serious warning signs were present with the brothers Followill from the start of their kingly career, but My Morning Jacket promised more with its rootsy rock when it emerged from Louisville more than a dozen years ago. No, Jim James (or Yim Yames, or James Olliges, or whatever you want to call him) never has been as potent a vocalist as his boosters claim, but he and the boys churned out decent early-Wilco/Neil Young redux grooves back in the day. Things went to hell, however, when they followed their big-time break-out “Z” (2005) with their last album “Evil Urges” (2008), wherein they decided they could be mid-period Wilco “experimental,” which infamously meant imitating Phish playing Prince jams. As a result, “Highly Suspicious” remains a serious contender for one of the worst songs ever recorded.

“Circuital” is a title meant to convey that the band is coming full-circle back to the rootsier sounds of yore, and much has been made of Tucker Martine (the Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens) recording the group in a church gym in Louisville. But the new disc actually has much more in common with “Evil Urges” than it does with “The Tennessee Fire”( 1999) or “At Dawn” (2001), starting with the overblown silliness of horn sections and choirs. Really, bands ought to need a license before ever employing either—and if you doubt it, just listen to “Holdin’ on to Black Metal,” apparently inspired by a track on a compilation of soul-pop from Thailand.

Keyboardist Bo Koster told Rolling Stone that James described the vibe to the band thusly: “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 sing-along.” And yeah, it really does sound that awful—almost as bad as “Highly Suspicious,” in fact. It’s the album’s nadir, but the blubberly “First Light,” the ponderous “Wonderful (The Way I Feel),” the all-too-accurately named “Slow Slow Tune,” and the Beach Boys homage “Outta My System” aren’t much better.

The latter was written for Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem to play in the new Muppets movie, but they rejected it. A better band might think it’s in trouble when it comes up with a track too cartoonish for a cartoon. Alas, My Morning Jacket doesn’t seem to have gotten the message.

On the four-star scale: 1 STAR