written by Chris Familton
When the bass drops one minute into the opening track Victory Dance a smile creeps upward and the head gratefully nods in a sign of satisfaction. My Morning Jacket started off with a couple of albums that established them as one of those classic genre stretching americana acts like Wilco who weren’t afraid to experiment, stretch their music out to infinity and dabble in unexpected places. Jim James is without a doubt the driving force and maestro that makes MMJ the special band that they are. It is his falsetto and tone that defines their sound and takes it to that other place where romanticism and melancholy mix with widescreen drama. The band’s last album Evil Urges left many scratching their heads with its added funk and soul tinge and it certainly felt like an unnecessary diversion from the areas the band most excels in.
Back to that opening track and the reason why it works so well – it immediately dispels any fears that the band have gone further out into the cosmos and it reconfirms how stunningly well they do dark psychedelic country music. Within the one song they go from tentative crooning to full blown crescendo, signaling that MMJ are in fine form if they can sustain those dynamics across Circuital’s ten tracks.
The title track refers to returning to where you first started and it feels like classic MMJ with the ringing guitar chords, feel-good rhythm and James’ voice reaching high and wide. Wonderful (The Way I Feel) immediately ushers itself into the ranks of the band’s finest moments. With a chorus that tugs heavily on the heartstrings it is a wonderful example of how James can make a happy song sound so warmly melancholic.
Halfway through Circuital and so far not a misstep but with Outta My System things start to go a little sideways. The Beach Boys via Nashville tune is a curious blend that almost works but ends up sounding shallow and lacking a convincing vibe. It sounds too twee and rudimentary compared to what the band is capable of. Likewise with the following track Holdin’ On To Black Metal where they return to the white funk of Evil Urges with its parping horn section and what sounds like a children’s choir. It ends up sounding like a prog track from a tacky musical.
Thankfully redemption is found in the breath of fresh air of First Light. It is indeed at the lighter end of the MMJ song spectrum but after the preceding two tracks it serves as a timely palette cleanser, complete with a Stooges/Steve Mackay sounding outro. From here on the band stick to what they do best – mixing slide guitar, fuzz bass, jerky dynamics and uplifting melodies into their brand of cosmic americana. Slow Slow Tune is just that – a song that shuffles and sways and sounds like the time James has spent with M. Ward in Monsters of Folk has rubbed off on him. The guitar solo that kicks in a third of the way through the track is sweet and perfectly pitched. It disappears all too soon but re-emerges later with more grit, confidence and electricity before fading graciously from view.
Circuital ends with the haunting Movin’ Away. It is one of those classic pop songs that could have been sung in the 60s by The Ronettes or by CSN in the 70s. It has that timeless feel that you know you could play to any fan of music, regardless of their tastes – and they would thank you profusely for enriching their ears. Though Wilco are still the leaders of the pack when it comes to this 21st Century country music, MMJ aren’t far behind and are carving out a niche for themselves that is both classic and unique. Circuital is not their finest moment, nor is it their weakest. Flaws included, it is another impressive bookmark in their chapter of the great American songbook.
out now via Spunk
this review first appeared on FasterLouder