Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Album Review: Evil Urges

My Morning Jacket

Evil Urges

ATCO Records

When My Morning Jacket's new album leaked on the net a full month prior to the official release, excitement was replaced with a gasps of frustration as fans who downloaded the leak discovered that their favorite rock 'n roll band had made a rather large stylistic departure from the signature MMJ sound that initially attracted them to the band. Naturally, the internet lit up like a California wildfire with cry's of mutiny and horror.

Imagine that, a band not doing exactly what you wanted them to do. Shocking.

While Evil Urges is a challenging record upon first listen, some patience and repeated spins reveal a band that has not abandoned it's core musical traits, but instead has opted for a widescreen musical lense that opens up their sound to new possibilities.

Expanding their sonic pallete to include elements of Soul/R&B, Prog Rock and 80s pop, MMJ have sent a message to critics and fans that they are not content being the Kentucky space rockers who sounded like Neil Young & Crazy Horse fed through the atmospherics of Radiohead. The move was a wise one, with up-and-coming bands like Band of Horses and Fleet Foxes obviously utilzing MMJ's musical blueprint, the time to move on is now, or forever risk being stuck in a creative cul-de-sac.

Title track and album opening song "Evil Urges" picks up where the experimentations of previous album Z left off: alternating between proggy keyboards and a bouncing reggae rhythm, lead singer and principal songwriter Jim James lets his Prince-like falsetto fly until mid song where a Who-like guitar battle erupts leading to rocking finale.

The experimentation continues with the electronic/keyboard-heavy "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream Part 1" that sounds like the band OD'd on 80s synth pop and production techniques. It's not until about two and half minutes into the song that the emotional payoff of the vocals and the keys swell to the bursting point and reveal a glorious emotional collage of harmony vocals and keyboard flourishes.

Of course, the song that initially sounded the alarm bell for die hard fans is "Highly Suspicious". With it's Devo keyboards, robotic like chorus and Jame's falsetto singing about peanut butter pudding surprises, "Highly Suspicious" is actually a fun robo-rock song. Fans of the band should be used to MMJ's odd brand of humor by now, and besides, the real audio atrocities of Evil Urges are just a few songs away.

While I praise the band for the experimentation and musical risks they take on Evil Urges, I just cannot get into songs like "Thank You Too" and "Sec Walkin'" that sound like bad 80s Billy Ocean/Air Supply pop ballads . Evolving their drifty country ballads to pop schmaltz just doesn't work for this fan and these songs are the music risks that didn't pan out.

Cleansing my musical pallette from those two songs with rockers like "I'm Amazed", "Aluminum Park" and "Remnants" remind me of the power MMJ has in the live setting- a place MMJ has always ruled. But those didn't prepare me for the true sonic gems of the album.

The hauntingly lovely "Librarian" is the natural evolution from previous drifty epics like "Dancefloors" and "I Will Sing You Songs" off It Still Moves. "Librarian" is almost cinematic in matching the music to James' tale of a young man's crush on an older woman. It's not the most original story, but the sum of its parts creates an MMJ classic.

Hiding at the end of the album is the one-two punch of "Smokin' From Shootin'" and "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream Part 2". Beginning with an electro pulse, "Smokin'" evolves from an emotionally raw beginning to a satisfyingly epic orchestral finish that would make Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood smile. "Touch me I'm Going to Scream Pt. 2" succesfully melds the electro pop influences found elsewhere on the album into a head-bobbing finish to the album that will leave a smile on your face and your toe tapping.

Along with the title track, these last two songs represent to the true evolution of MMJ's sound and should calm any nervous fan thinking the band has lost its marbles. For all the musical risks the band takes on Evil Urges, the real payoff is in creating one of 2008's most exciting albums.

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