My morning jacket: southern comfort

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Bottled in the near-title track of their new album The Waterfall is the essence of My Morning Jacket. In Its Infancy (The Waterfall) meanders between lush pastoral passages and tranquil calm, before taking off for the heavens in a climactic rush of surging guitars and seismic rhythmic shifts. It is audacious, breathtaking stuff, but also in keeping with the musical high-wire act the band have been performing these past 15 years.

The roots of it go back to their first rehearsals, in an empty grain silo on a farm belonging to a relative of singer/guitarist Jim James. Bubbling up in this vast natural reverb chamber, their country-folk-psychedelic rock brew grew wings and was sent soaring into the seemingly limitless space above their heads.

At the end of the 90s, James was knocking around the fringes of a tight-knit punk community in Louisville, capital city of the ‘bluegrass state’ of Kentucky. Wearying of being an outsider and of the scene’s self-imposed strictures and elitism, he recruited three members from local emo band Winter Death Club to join him in My Morning Jacket. Bassist Tom Blankenship is the only other original member to have stayed the course, but James’s vision was well-defined from the start. With My Morning Jacket he intended upon ranging far and wide, casting back to a sepia-tinted golden age of American music and forward into a future without boundaries. Or at least James would say as much if he were endlessly quotable or more given to self-aggrandisement. Since he is neither, in his own soft-spoken telling My Morning Jacket’s original mission statement is made to sound rather less grandiose. “Fact is, I just didn’t want to work shitty jobs any more,” he says in his good-natured drawl. “Man, I did a bunch of ’em. I worked in a lot of fast-food restaurants, like Subway and Dairy Queen. I did telemarketing and landscaping. Hated them all, except for a job I got at the city zoo and one in a coffee shop. Also, I had my own teenage insecurities. And so for me Louisville wasn’t a very comfortable place to grow up.” James honed his new band’s kaleidoscopic sound out at the farm and through their first local gigs. Then as now, My Morning Jacket struck a balance between echoing a bunch of classic bands and artists, and sounding like no one so much as they themselves. James’s high-pitched vocals recalled both Neil Young and Roy Orbison; their harmonies were suggestive of Crosby, Stills & Nash; they did spaced-out country rock like Buffalo Springfield or the Grateful Dead, tossed in a splash of 70s Pink Floyd and rocked like Lynyrd Skynyrd. Like the best of their influences, they hit their stride when improvising, their music getting freer and wilder the further out-there it was pushed and pulled.

Emboldened, James pressed on across ever more varied terrain. He sucked up all manner of unlikely and disparate elements to arrive at 2008’s Evil Urges. Contained within that album were a soul-drenched ballad, a Prince-style funk workout replete with falsetto lead vocal, and a lilting acoustic piece about finding true love in the unlikely setting of a library. Taking to the road to promote it, that summer the band played a landmark gig at the Bonnaroo Festival in rural Tennessee. Going on at midnight and in a torrential downpour, James conducted MMJ through a four-hour, 35-song set punctuated by raucous guest spots including Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, and a rag-bag of covers, among them Sly And The Family Stone’s Hot Fun In The Summertime to Mötley Crüe’s Home Sweet Home). The sense of gleeful abandon was intensified by the fact of James sporting a pair of outrageous knee-high fur boots and wielding a Flying V guitar. In total, it cemented his band’s reputation as the greatest live act of their generation. “You know, I think that’s become more important to other people than it is to us,” James demurs. “I mean, I like playing live, but I think more about the records, because we’re all going to die sometime and they last forever. For me the live thing is more of a fleeting moment of passion.“A lot of bands have a smash single propel them to stardom, or there will be a government decree that says you must like them on penalty of death. We’ve not had a hit or a blanket ruling in our favour. We’ve just carried on doing our own thing and I’m glad anyone wants to come listen to us.”

From then to now, James has continued to walk a fine line between pleasing himself and nudging his band deeper into the popular consciousness. Their 2011 Circuital album went top-five in the US. On the ensuing tour they sold out the prestigious Madison Square Garden in New York, granting them a pass to the top table of American rock. Appearing as My Morning Straitjacket in an episode of the hit animated TV show_ American Dad_ also gained them admission to the strange, twilit netherworld of pop-culture phenomena. For his own part, James wrote a brace of songs for intended use in a Muppets film that was subsequently aborted. Both songs turned up on Circuital. He was more successful teaming up with kindred spirits Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes and singer-songwriter M Ward in 2009 to make a more conventional but finely judged folk rock album as Monsters Of Folk. In 2013 he released his first solo album, Regions Of Light And Sound Of God, on which he played all the instruments and conjured sparse, intermittently thrilling electro-funk. “For me it’s really important that I get to go off and do these other things,” he says. “I get bored easily. But then again I value family and long friendships. It’s always been a challenge to keep myself inspired and also stay with something that’s as constant as the band has been.” Late in 2013, James reconvened My Morning Jacket in the idyll of Stinson Beach Studios, nestled in the verdant surroundings of north California’s Mount Tamalpais state park. Their elevated vantage point offered them a vista over the Pacific Ocean to the west, and to the south a distant view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the original love-in city, San Francisco. It wasn’t a view that James was able to appreciate to begin with. Bending to lift an amp he suffered a herniated disc in his back, which required surgery and two months’ recuperation from a prone position on the studio sofa.

While recovering he was inspired to new heights. The Waterfall is reflective of the sprawling, untamed environment in which it was made. Mining a rich seam of American music stretching back to the head trips of the 60s and beyond, it pulls in everything from folk spirituals to lysergic psych-rockers, wistful country laments to propulsive electro-pop. It sounds timeless, ageless. At one time or other the shadows of such trailblazers as Jefferson Airplane, Neil Young, Steely Dan and the Grateful Dead pass over it. The record has a bittersweet, melancholic edge. It conveys a sense of things coming to an end and of the relentless march of time. “For me, and other people I know, more recently it’s been a period of massive change,” James says. “I don’t like to share the intimate details of my life, but a lot of things have ended or are ending. Life is really hard sometimes. All the things we’re taught are important are so meaningless and fleeting. “That sense of sadness is definitely a part of my music. At the same time, as a band we also try to celebrate joy and humour. I think music can perpetuate the pain rather than help heal it. There’s the classic Kurt Cobain thing of taking comfort in being sad. I believe life is bigger and more complex than that.”

On a hot streak, James has amassed enough material to make up a second My Morning Jacket album later this year. In the meantime the band will spend the summer winding their way across North America and Europe playing headline and festival dates. Outside the euphoria of their shows, James has mixed feelings about being on the road. He puts his back injury down to the abuse he subjected his body to during two-and-a-half years of non-stop touring up to that point. “The more of life I get to live, the more I’m looking just to spend days free of pain, and with the ability to love and to laugh,” he concludes. “It doesn’t matter what record we put out, people will love it or hate it, so that’s irrelevant. What matters is that we enjoy life as it should be enjoyed, which is in the moment. “Growing up, everyone who was popular in my home town was holier than thou and too cool for school. I never felt welcome. And that’s partly why I don’t care if we sound like part of the music scene today. It’s not as if we ever did.”

MORNING GLORIES

Five pretenders to the Jacket’s psych-rock crown.

Fleet Foxes

These Seattleites possess the Jacket’s antiquated harmonies and also Jim James’ abundant facial hair. Both were served up on their faultless debut album of 2008 and 2011’s more testing follow-up, Helplessness Blues.

Check out:_ Fleet Foxes_ [Sub Pop album, 2008]

Midlake

From Denton, Texas and also drawn to Jacket-style harmonies and mixing up folk, country and prog-rock elements in their quasi-mystical sound. Likewise, they have beards.

Check out: The Courage Of Others [Bella Union album, 2010]

Phosphorescent

Essentially, one-man beardy polymath Matthew Houck, a native of Athens, Georgia who has been making questing country rock records since 2003.

Check out: Muchacho [Dead Oceans album, 2013]

Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros

Bearded – obviously – indie-folksters from California whose reputation is built on their rousing festival appearances, but still to translate that to record.

Check out: Up From Below [Vagrant Records album, 2009]

Alabama Shakes

Georgian rock classicists fronted by booming-voiced Brittany Howard (not bearded) and big with Jim James. So-so debut album, but a more daring second record is out now.

Check out: _Sound & Colour _[Rough Trade album, 2015]

Classic Rock 211: Features