Few albums are as misleadingly titled as My Morning Jacket's Evil Urges. Released during the apocalyptic summer of 2008, Evil Urges jettisoned the Kentucky group's usual neo-Southern psychedelia to bask in some old-school, gospel-inflected R&B. Think Booker T. and the MGs by way of The Staple Singers.
The record wore a surprisingly sunny disposition despite its spooky moniker. Alas, music critics were ambivalent. Pitchfork, ever the cultural tastemaker, dismissed Evil Urges as "exhausting" and "eye-poppingly annoying." Although the album charted substantially higher than 2005's Z (still regarded by many as My Morning Jacket's strongest and most realized work to date), Jim James & Co. appeared to be on shaky critical ground for the first time in their career.
Today, My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel stands by that polarizing prog-soul manifesto. "Hey, whatever works," he tells the Scene over the phone. "If Jim wants to listen to Curtis Mayfield and sing in a falsetto, so be it."
But after cycling through that more experimental phase of their creativity, My Morning Jacket has returned to the fundamentals. In May, their back-to-basics Circuital was greeted with all-pervasive excitement. In a year when most "great" new bands — from Fleet Foxes to The War on Drugs, from Tennis to Middle Brother — are content to liberally pillage the sounds of 1970s psychedelic rock, Circuital is a singularly impressive achievement. It's a fearless juxtaposition of influences both retro and modern.
Asked how their latest effort holds up to the band's previous work, Broemel replies facetiously. "It's the most accomplished record ever made," he says, laughing. But the Nashville native won't dispute how visceral Circuital sounds even in comparison to 2003's It Still Moves, one of the most delightfully crude slabs of funk-rock ever committed to tape. The new tracks are heavy with improvisation and tend to sound like the result of a demonically productive jam session.
"Before, we would rehearse for weeks beforehand," says Broemel. "But this time we just set up a proper studio and immediately started recording."
Circuital was helmed in close collaboration with Nashville producer Tucker Martine, a floppy-haired journeyman who has worked with Spoon and Sufjan Stevens, among others. Martine brings a touch of twee whimsy to songs like "The Day Is Coming," which utilizes a dainty minor-key piano progression. The introspective psych-surf number "Outta My System," meanwhile, compares and contrasts the "lust of youth" with "the security of marriage." Even better is "Slow Slow Tune," where James breaks out in a morbid, pleading falsetto.
Perhaps the song that most evocatively recalls vintage My Morning Jacket is "Holdin' on to Black Metal," which juxtaposes slinky, expressive harmonizing with vicious guitar breaks and '60s-style Motown horns. The result is about as close to perfect as rock music in 2011 can get.
The lyrics — about loss and clinging to the fractured remains of your youth — leave plenty open to interpretation. Broemel refuses to speculate on James' creative process ("I don't like to overstep into that territory"), but he summarizes the recording of "Holdin' on to Black Metal" as lively.
"Tucker heard it and was like, 'How are you gonna top that one?' " Broemel remembers. "So we spent the next two days trying to record it better."
A word about that: My Morning Jacket recorded the entirety of Circuital in an old and apparently dilapidated church gymnasium in their hometown of Louisville, Ky. (The album was mixed at Nashville's own Blackbird Studios.) For a band that had grown all too accustomed to tinkering in slick, souped-up Manhattan studios, this approach was unusual. But Broemel insists that the change in scenery was also vitally important.
"Recording in New York and being able to take the train to and from the studio every morning was fun, too," he says. "But a spiritual place like a church definitely informs your creativity and outlook."
"Just being able to wake up in the morning and shoot baskets in the gym or drink from their little water fountain," he continues. "It was fun."
But it hasn't all been great: The band was tapped to write two tracks, including the bubbly, sentimental "Our World," for an upcoming Disney-produced Muppets movie. Both songs surface on the soundtrack, but neither ultimately appeared in the big-screen adaptation — much to My Morning Jacket's disappointment.
Thankfully, the group isn't lacking for cross-promotional marketing opportunities. In fact, in November, six of their songs were featured in a much-ballyhooed episode of Seth MacFarlane's animated Fox series American Dad. As someone who has always presided several turns left of the dial and who is used to the fickle, hostile nature of rock fans, Broemel seems slightly startled by the notion that his band's work is reaching a broader audience. Asked about the experience on American Dad, Broemel turns giddy. "They made animated versions of us!" he beams in disbelief.
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