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Show Review: My Morning Jacket [Chicago Theatre; Chicago; 6/9/15]

My Morning Jacket are at their core an outdoor ampitheatre band. The music they make, in all of its triumphant goodness, can be so expansive that even the largest of rooms would have trouble holding it. That’s a big part of the reason why they’re often asked to play music festivals, and do so with the sort of wild abandon reserved for the headliners they are. Looking through their copious tour archive, I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn that My Morning Jacket’s last four shows in Chicago have all taken place at festivals and/or outdoor venues. The last time they played inside was in late December 2008, where they blew the doors off the Chicago Theatre for two nights in a row. It’s taken them seven years to return, which is probably how long the venue needed to repair and reinforce the “damage” from last time. Of course now they’re even bigger and more popular band with a few radio hits under their belts, so for 2015 a two-night stand becomes a three-night stand. Out of concern for my safety and the thought that the 94-year-old venue might not survive the 72 hour rock and roll punishment it was about to endure, I decided that attending the first show on Tuesday night would probably be the smartest choice. Immediately following the show I can tell you my biggest regret was not getting tickets to all three.

It began with a waterfall. Specifically, the psychedelic-looking one that graces the cover of their new album. It was projected onto a gigantic white sheet that covered the entire front of the stage. The first few plinks of keyboards rang out from behind the sheet, as did Jim James’ voice at the beginning of “Believe (Nobody Knows),” the opening track on The Waterfall record. As the song approached the first chorus, a blinding white light flashed on from the back of the stage, revealing the massive shadows of a band that many consider to be larger than life. It was a playful start to the show, and the curtain finally fell once they got around to the chorus for the second time. A massive cheer erupted from the crowd as the band was fully and exultantly revealed. I’ve seen a couple of other artists pull a similar stunt at the start of their shows, and honestly it’s effective even if it’s not original.

Album Review: My Morning Jacket – Circuital [ATO]

“Highly Suspicious” is by far the most highly suspicious song in My Morning Jacket’s catalogue. That song, off the band’s last album “Evil Urges”, had notable issues in both the way it was sung (in the highest of high falsettos) and with the lyrics as well (“peanut butter surprise”). For a band with such a consistent career of wild experimentation among their albums yet always remaining within the boundaries of good taste and reason, it appeared they had finally jumped the proverbial shark and reached the wrong side of good taste. Of course that record also produced the absolutely brilliant “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt. 2” an 8-minute freak out of a closing track that ranked among the band’s best material. Still, Jim James & Co. seemed to recognize that their last record was not their finest, and thus have been touting their new one “Circuital” as a return to everything that made them great. While it does come off as more “Z” than “Evil Urges”, some of the more grating moments of the last album do come out and play from time to time, once again sabotaging an attempt at brilliance.

There’s a false sense of security that My Morning Jacket sucks you into from the beginning of “Circuital”. The opening track “Victory Dance” is hypnotic in how it draws you in, first with a lone keyboard and James’ vocal, then slowly rolling out into the expanse over the course of the next few minutes. The next thing you know, five minutes have passed, there’s a huge instrumental swell and suddenly the track is over almost before you realize it had begun. Strange how that works sometimes. But if there’s a quintessential MMJ song on this entire record, it’s the 7+ minute title track, which contains so much of what this band has done right over the last several years. The bright acoustic guitar brings a highway vibe to the song, and the eventual intrusion of the jagged electric guitar solos along with some waterfalls of piano notes are pure magic. There may not be any obscene stretches of James’ vocal range as he’s done on occasion, but in this case it’s not particularly required. If they wrote an entire album’s worth of songs as amazing as that title track, it’d be the band’s best with relative ease, and that’s with an already strong catalogue. Unfortunately this story ends in tragedy, particularly because not a single other track on the album cracks skulls open and explodes out of them with fully expanded wings. That’s not to say the rest of the songs on the album are all of poor quality, but a better way to put it might be to mention a distinct lack of highlights on the album’s second half.

Before we tackle that though, there are still a handful of rock solid My Morning Jacket songs on “Circuital” worth mentioning. Despite its general state of acoustic quiet, “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” makes great use of Jim James’ voice, something that the rest of the record cannot quite boast. There’s a surprisingly large gap between how James’ vocals are used on this album (and earlier ones) versus how dynamic and wide-ranging they are live. At the very least it’s nice to hear his full talents being put to betterm nire realistic uses. As for the drug tale “Outta My System”, it contains a fair amount of humor that MMJ likes to throw in on occasion. Assuming you “get” their style of comedy, it makes for one of the most fun tracks on the record. Moving from that to the interesting and moderately goofy “Holdin’ on to Black Metal” creates a dynamic 1-2 punch that only misses the mark slightly. That first single, complete with children’s choir and falsetto vocals, can be grating to some. If neither of those things annoy you, it actually makes for a rather catchy and likeable track that’s easily better than any of the official singles released on “Evil Urges”. The “lesson” the song teaches about never giving up on heavy metal music feels as if it was written in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, which is definitely better than assuming outright sincerity.

The energy held on “First Light” and “You Wanna Freak Out” keep “Circuital” from rolling completely off the tracks, but ultimately both songs are rather bland and formulaic from a band that tends to avoid doing either. If My Morning Jacket were to hammer out a very commercially acceptable pop record with little regard for all the talent they have and have shown throughout the years, those two songs would fit in very well. They’re easy on the ears and pleasant to a fault. If there was ever a place for a wild guitar solo or even just a jam session, those would have been the spots to put them. The end of the record slows things down significantly, starting first with the properly titled “Slow Slow Tune”. In spite of temptations to write a song like that off, it’s James’ wounded and heartfelt vocal performance that saves it from becoming a total wreck. Closing with “Movin Away” however doesn’t do much for anybody. The glacial pace at which it moves sounds like the band is altogether tired and uninspired.

When placed in direct comparison with “Evil Urges”, “Circuital” is an improvement. Not that big of one, but better than expected. It may be even easier to think of these songs having a combination of elements from the band’s last couple records. What’s unfortunate is that this is coming from a band that has always tended to look forwards rather than backwards. Given that this is their sixth album though, they can be a little forgiven for scaling back just a little on any big ideas. You can only evolve so much before you start running low on new areas to mine. Still, for a band with the famous line from “Wordless Chorus” that says, “We are the innovators/they are the imitators”, there’s a lot more imitating than innovating going on here. Yet it’s self-imitation, and to be fair a lot of this stuff still sounds pretty damn great even if it’s been done before. There are no flagrant mistakes that ever take you out of the record, just a few more mediocre moments that don’t quite hit their mark. Nevertheless, this band is anything if not resilient and the future still burns brighter than ever for them even if they fail to return to peak condition.

Buy “Circuital” from Amazon

Album Review: The Roots – How I Got Over [Def Jam]

The Roots are without a doubt the best band to ever work in late night television. That, after 20 years as a band they chose to sign a contract to become the house band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon is just a little bit surprising. Their star has been on the proverbial rise in the past several years, and given their ever-increasing popularity, it’d make sense if they just kept at it and continued the recording and touring cycle they’ve done for so long already. Of course given the challenges of working in the music industry these days, and that most everyone in the band has families they should be spending time with, agreeing to a job that has decent hours, a steady paycheck and doesn’t require travel must seem like a good idea. When they did agree to work in late night, they also said that they were done writing and recording new albums as their entire focus would be on the TV show. It turns out they lied to some degree, and in their spare time were able to piece together a new record that due to a number of different issues was delayed multiple times in the last year. At long last, “How I Got Over” is finally out this week, and if you know The Roots, chances are you know what you’re in for.

The surprises on “How I Got Over” come in the form of guest artists playing with The Roots this time around. While they are very much a band (or more of a collective, given their large numbers) that plays their own instruments, The Roots have rarely worked with other actual bands on their albums. Instead, because their songs are largely hip hop in nature, you get a number of rappers and R&B stars making guest appearances. This time around, perhaps informed by some of the groups they’ve seen perform on “Late Night”, they’re diversifying a bit more than usual and incorporating some notable indie artists into their songs. Opening track “A Peace of Light” features guest vocals by Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle of Dirty Projectors. The Roots collaborate a little with Monsters of Folk (or more likely just Yim Yames) to give the song “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)” a little hip hop edge in what becomes “Dear God 2.0”. They also do a track with Joanna Newsom, which samples her song “Book of Right-On” along with new vocals to become simply “Right On”. Aside from those rather interesting guests, there’s also some more familiar faces for Roots fans in the form of Dice Raw, Phonte, P.O.R.N. and the great John Legend.

In terms of pure musical interest, long-time fans of The Roots will feel pretty comfortable with how this record sounds. It’s very much in line stylistically with their last couple albums “Game Theory” and “Rising Down”, though with a couple notable exceptions. First and foremost, “How I Got Over” is very much the sort of record that you want to sit down with and listen to from start to finish. The track sequencing is incredibly important in this case, though if you happen to stumble upon a song from the album while on shuffle it probably won’t feel too out of place. Really what might bother some people is how long it takes for things to really get going and settle into a groove. The first few tracks may be slow, but they’re also dark and immensely intriguing. Listened to in order, they blend into one another effortlessly and from the “do do do” harmonies provided by the ladies of Dirty Projectors through the piano-and-drums over hip hop of “Radio Daze” there’s some intensely deep and smartly composed moments along the way. The second half of the album also boasts some serious highlights as well, and the string of tracks from Joanna Newsom’s “Right On” through the seriously hard-hitting hip hop of “Web 20/20” feels particularly brilliant. Sandwiched in between those are two songs in a row with John Legend which are exactly as great as they need to be. Really there’s not a weak track on the album, and special credit goes to the two main players in The Roots, Questlove and Black Thought (Tariq) for their work both performing and producing the record. Tariq’s extremely smart, if occasionally politically motivated rhymes and Questlove’s rock-solid drumming make for the absolute best things about this album, whether guests are involved or not. The Roots refuse to be outshined on their own record.

Whatever the actual reason(s) for the multiple delays might have been, “How I Got Over” almost seems worth the wait. It may not be the band’s best album, nor their easiest to like, but it’s still highly interesting and holds firm their reputation of being one of the best hip hop acts out there today. Whether or not there will be another record beyond this one is still a huge question mark given their late night duties, but if this is the last original material we’ll hear from The Roots, they’re going out on a great note. Those completely averse to hip hop probably won’t find much if anything to like here, but for the indie kids who haven’t heard a Roots album before, this is as good of a place as any to get started. Virtually all the collaborations turn out well, and it’s particularly nice to hear a Joanna Newsom or a Yim Yames popping up between the smartly written rhymes. Hopefully there will be more of that in the future. For the time being, it’d be a good idea to buy a copy of “How I Got Over”, and to witness the incredible skills of The Roots, watch them weeknights on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Not only do they have the right entrance song for every guest (they had Heidi Klum on the other day and did a play on The Go Go’s “Our Lips Are Sealed”, renaming it “Her Lips Are Seal’s”), but every now and then they’ll improvise songs about audience members using various musical styles. It is nothing short of incredible, and proof positive that not only are The Roots the best band in late night, but also one of the best bands working today.

Follow link to download “Dear God 2.0” free from RCRD LBL

Buy “How I Got Over” from Amazon

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