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If My Morning Jacket isn’t exactly a classic-rock band, it has reaffirmed a classic rock cliché: If you hold onto a taste long enough, no matter how repulsive or retrograde, or how implausible its return may seem, it’ll come into vogue again. Of course, with approximately 79 million indie bands draining a much smaller pool of musical influences, that happens a lot these days. Even fans of the Alan Parsons Project have gotten to feel a little hip recently, despite the fact that logicnot to mention justicewould dictate that they spend the remainder of their days exiled on a remote isle far from the trade currents of indie cred. Because nobody would be foolhardy enough to resurrect Parsons’ I Robot schtick, right? Wrong. Alan Parsons is alive and well in Grandaddy.
Still, according to my own calculations, it should have been just about forever before anybody cool became desperate enough to borrow from the calculated rustication of my favorite little Band from Big Pink. I could see myself sitting beside, say, some cobweb-draped England Dan & John Ford Coley fan in an empty waiting room, beneath a clock that measured time in geological terms, each of us hoping against hope for our respective ship to come in. But here we are: After a slew of discs for various mini- and micro-indies, MMJ has simultaneously turned in its major-label debut, It Still Moves, and pledged allegiance to the United States of (Mostly Canadian) Americana, generating a fair amount of hipster-baiting hype in the process. Hang on, England Dan fan, hang on!
The Louisville, Ky., quintet is tough to categorize. “Alt-country” won’t do itnobody in his right mind would label an outfit as unrepentantly freaky-spacey as MMJ alt-country. My wife has gone on record as saying the band reminds her of Radioheadwhich just goes to show why I’m the music critic in the family. (That said, they certainly do adore My Morning Jacket in the U.K. So maybe she’s on to something.) I think what she’s referring to is MMJ’s big, echoey sound. Johnny Quaid, who is rapidly becoming one of the most interesting guitar players on the planet, is, to put it mildly, an unredeemable reverb junkie. His MO is basically to create a huge sonic space in which Jim James’ vocals can carom around like a SuperBall in an airplane hangar.
Speaking of echoes, It Still Moves recalls not only the Band, but also such early ’70s back-to-the-landers as the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Tim Buckley, Jackson Browne, and…well, the list goes on forever. James even enlisted that most American of musical entities, the Memphis Horns, to funk up a couple of tracks. And unlike Grandaddy, which presents its Parsonsisms on a scale intimate enough to please bedroom tapers, MMJ goes inevitably for Watkins Glen-sized grandeur. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, I need a band that incorporates elements of the Band, Jackson Browne, and the Grateful Dead like I need scurvy. I hate those bands. But in so doing, you’re missing the exact nature of MMJ’s genius, which is its uncanny ability to transform Dad’s disgraceful loves into your secret desires. James & Co. know that folks need something interesting to listen to once they put down those Black Flag records and start talking about “songcraft.” And that’s what makes them great: They know you better than you know yourself.
MMJ also understands that, to make somebody see something anew, the trick is to show it against a new background. Take album-opener “Mahgeetah,” for instance, which introduces Browne to the Beach Boys for a quick trip down Mexico way. Or “Rollin Back,” on which the band transports Brian Wilson from the studio to the honky-tonk, resulting in the kind of lonesome barroom blues you’d have gotten if Wilson had been a righteous truck-drivin’ man instead of a nutball sandbox-in-the-living-room recluse. It opens with some of the dreamiest vocal harmonies this side of Jan & Dean, then hunkers down like Lowell George’s proverbial fat man in a bathtub. Meanwhile, James looks forward to meeting his baby “on the other side,” and Quaid chooses his notes as carefully as Robbie Robertson.
And if you think that track’s clear-as-a-mountain-stream guitar tones are impressive, get a load of the ones on “Dancefloors,” which are guaranteed to have you checking the closets for the restless shade of Jerry Garcia. With keyboardist Danny Cash pounding out a Keith Godchaux-worthy boogie and then joining Quaid for a glorious, horn-driven jam four minutes in, the track has got to be the most blissful blues for Allah ever to be covered on Pitchforkmedia.com. “Dancefloors/Headlights,” James sings ever so sweetly. “In my blood there’s gasoline/For an urban boy on a dirty tour/I never felt so clean.”
Ah, yes, the transformative experience of the rock ‘n’ roll tour. But don’t think MMJ doesn’t mean it. The road also beckons on the double-timed “Golden” and the relatively stripped-down “One in the Same,” leading in each case straight through the still-vibrant center of American Dreamland. In the former, that ends us at “heaven’s golden shore”; in the latter, a place where “a joke or a job or a dream/…are one in the same/And ALL then are one in the same/And all men are one in the same.” Thanks to MMJ’s couldn’t-be-better playing and finely calibrated sense of restraint, it all comes across less like anything having to do with Cameron Crowe and more like the Lord’s very own gospel truth it oughta be.
The album’s tour de force of golden godliness, however, is “Easy Morning Rebel.” With its punchy horns, plucky Garcia-inflected guitar lines, and otherworldly, high-lonesome vocal melody, this is everything MMJ stands for in a note-perfect five minutes. It isn’t a songit’s a delta, the final collecting point for a thousand rich strains of American music. Like the Band’s aptly named “The Weight,” “Easy Morning Rebel” carries its load of mythic freight with ease, turning the daunting task of bearing America’s musical legacy into the 21st century into a veritable cakewalk. You can hear Elvis in the way it swings, Robertson and the boys in its gravitas, a touch of Stax soul in its sweet swagger.
“He’ll be the water/If you’ll be the wine/Sent down from heaven/In this earthly disguise,” sings James, and it doesn’t matter whether he’s referring to Mr. Christ or Mr. Presley, because whoever it is, “he sure looks good when he moves in the light.” The track ends the way a great live show ought to: in a breathtaking series of brass stops and starts that will leave you with the feeling that you didn’t just get your money’s worth, you got savedat least until tomorrow, anyway.
And really, could you ask for anything more? There’s nothing new under the indie sun. The age of self-creation is over, if there ever was one. Now is the time for creative thievery, and the cool-boy revivalism of the Strokes and their ilk just isn’t enough. Any bunch of shaggy-hairs can make the hip sound hip. The unhip is another matterthat, my friends, requires a Band. CP