As a general rule, I don’t particularly like jam-bands. I’m sure that I might be missing out on some classic music (The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers), but I usually find the endless sonic detours into nowhere rather boring. The extended jams seem to suggest (to me anyway) that they want the audience to know how well they play, not how good their songs are.
A friend of mine in college (a huge fan of all types of jam-bands) first told me about My Morning Jacket, my junior year in college, which was around the fall of 2002 or the spring of 2003. “Augh, you know I don’t like jam-bands,” I told him with a bit of smugness. I had already had enough of listening to the Dead at the numerous parties which were always held in his room. One more band like that, would be one too many for me. A few years later, another mutual friend told me to check out My Morning Jacket’s Okonokos live CD. This friend was also a huge fan of jam-bands, but he also had a pretty broad taste, I didn’t dismiss his suggestion right away. That being said, I never acted upon it.
I finally came around in 2006, when My Morning Jacket opened for Pearl Jam (who ranks among my best concerts list). It quickly became apparent that My Morning Jacket might rival Pearl Jam. Sure, their jams were extended – but they were loud. But the biggest impact was Jim James’ magnificent voice. There was a subtle tenderness for the slower songs, and cry from the tops of the mountains for the louder songs. It seemed to cut through the band was playing.
After that show, I went out and bought (what was at the time) their latest album, Z, which remains one of my favorite albums of the past 10 years. Its the soundtrack to summer twilight – hot and sweaty, and orange/reddish in color. It rocks, but it’s also laid-back and relaxed. You also hear each individual member of the band. Jim James (sorry I can’t refer to him as Yim Yames) might be the frontman, but he never overshadows the music.
James may lead his band into adventurous territory, but his emphasis has always been on songwriting – which is why his side projects have included Monsters of Folk with Connor Oberst and an EP tribute to George Harrison. Though they might be considered a “jam-band” by nature and rock out like the best 1970s bands, My Morning Jacket have a down-home feel that takes more cues from The Band, than The Grateful Dead. “I’m Amazed” (one of the best rock singles in the past few years) sounds like a Basement Tape out-take.
When My Morning Jacket do jam, the extended instrumental feels as if they written into the song, to give the song the extra punch and emotional power. Sometimes they contain loud and slow passages (“Dondante”), other times it’s cathartic (“Gideon”) or just a logical step (“Off the Record”). The Okonokos CD showcases a band at the height of their power – one who is not afraid to take chances taking their audience for a ride, but also one who knows when to bring it in as well.
I’ve only listened to their latest CD Circuital once, but so far its seems like James and company have made another masterpiece – 2008’s “Evil Urges” was a little too bizarre and scattershot though it did have some great moments – once again making a claim for America’s best band.