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My Morning Jacket

Badman

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Though it delivers what its title promises—a “Wordless Chorus”—the first track on Kentucky quintet My Morning Jacket’s new LP, Z, isn’t quite the gimmick it looks like on paper. First, the strange decision to sub amorphous, heartfelt oohs and ahhs where one would usually impart words of wisdom isn’t entirely out of synch on Z, which often finds frontman Jim James fretting over the limits of words and the creative process, and the power of music. In the verses of “Wordless Chorus,” he’s concerned about keeping things from getting dull between himself and his muse, asking such questions as “Tell me spirit—what has not been done? I’ll rush out and do it. Or are we doin’ it now?” Maybe some things really are better left unsaid, as James admits when he sings, “Sorry ’bout the things that I had to say” to launch “Off the Record.” By “Anytime,” he’s found “another way to communicate” but can’t tell if that’s good (“climbing up to the moon”) or bad (“bailin’ out too soon”). Indeed, with three other LPs under the band’s belt and two new members added to the team, MMJ uses Z to branch out a bit from the mellow, meandering country-rock of such earlier discs as 2003’s It Still Moves. Z begins with an electronic effect that’s more rave than honky-tonk, and keyboards courtesy of Bo Koster (a new addition, along with guitarist Carl Broemel) make the jam at the end of “Off the Record” sound a little like a warm-up for a fusion-era Miles Davis album. The most aurally ambitious offering, “Into the Woods,” employs a waltzy, carnivalesque soundscape and blended tracks of children playing to pose a riddle about creativity and—depending on how one chooses to interpret “a good showerhead and my right hand [are] the two best lovers that I ever had”—either rock-hero emulation or a particularly physical form of self-knowledge. Still, Z’s biggest departure from the band’s previous works is in the pruning; as MMJ discs go, 10 tracks in under 47 minutes is a rather svelte affair. “What a Wonderful Man,” the shortest cut on this or either of the group’s previous two discs, also shows that the guys see nothing wrong with speeding things up a bit. It’s a blow-the-roof-off tribute to a car-tape-deck DJ—part pied piper, part savior—who taught James to worship the blessed trinity of beat, hook, and noise. And though the unnamed subject is not without enigma of his own, with the band backing him up, James doesn’t need words to pass on the lesson loud and clear. —Joe Dempsey