THE SCHLANKSKY FILES: What’s All the Racket About My Morning Jacket?

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

By now it’s an ill-kept secret that I work at Rolling Stone magazine (fact-checkin’ for the man). There, they’ve accepted My Morning Jacket into their pantheon-according to them, they’re like, the best thing since the Rolling Stones. After years of hard work, the band is clearly having their moment. But on the eve of their show at Radio City Music Hall, which I attended by twist of fate (residual Coldplay Craigslist karma), I wasn’t sure how I felt about them-and I still don’t. My ambivalence to them would surprise a few people at this magazine, I’m sure, who are all big fans.

By now it’s an ill-kept secret that I work at Rolling Stone magazine (fact-checkin’ for the man). There, they’ve accepted My Morning Jacket into their pantheon-according to them, they’re like, the best thing since the Rolling Stones. After years of hard work, the band is clearly having their moment. But on the eve of their show at Radio City Music Hall, which I attended by twist of fate (residual Coldplay Craigslist karma), I wasn’t sure how I felt about them-and I still don’t. My ambivalence to them would surprise a few people at this magazine, I’m sure, who are all big fans.

A few nights prior, MMJ had a momentous moment at Bonnaroo, which has become their second home, playing for over three hours in the rain to an ecstatic crowd. And yet they were still humble and grateful performing for 66,000 less fans. “We want you to know from bottom of our hearts what it means to play at Radio City,” said frontman Jim James. “It’s just one of those special places.”

I’d actually seen them once before, several years ago, on a bill that featured Kings of Leon and Ben Kweller (I think I was there under the good graces of MMJ’s publicist)-I was blown away by the other two, and left puzzled by MMJ. I mostly remember their trademark whirlwind of hair.

Their storied love affair with reverb kept me at a distance from their early albums, and along the way, they replaced a significant amount of band members. I watched their live DVD Okonokos with much anticipation, didn’t get it, didn’t get Z, spent some time with their latest, the virtual five star record Evil Urges, and still felt confused. Why wasn’t I getting what a billion Bonnaroo babies already knew?

At the gig, where fans partied in the aisles and generally had a transcendent time, I cocked an analytical ear. The songs themselves didn’t grab me as much as I wished, but oddly, I felt like I knew every one I heard. How was that possible? They couldn’t all be on Evil Urges, could they? For example, “Thank You Too” (which is on Evil Urges)-how was that song not written already? It sounds like an A.M. radio staple.

To clarify, I am a fan of all of Jim James’ auxiliary work-his harmonies on records by Bright Eyes and M. Ward have always made my ears tingle. I love that MMJ have covered Dylan’s “Goin’ To Acapulco” and The Band’s “It Makes No Difference.” That shows some serious good taste. I’m also pretty sure this is what helped them get into the pantheon-if you associate yourself with the right people, you’ll eventually get noticed, no matter what. It also does a world of good to be loved by other great bands, like David Byrne and David Bowie stumping for the Arcade Fire.

Part of their appeal has to do with Jim James’ remarkable voice. When he sings ballads, his voice reminds me of Paul Simon’s crossed with Tracy Chapman. He can also shred his voice and rock, or get all atmospheric a la Radiohead. And then he’s got this whole other upper-range thing going, with a falsetto that Bono would be jealous of.

Until you’ve given ten spins to any album, you’ll always be a bit like Dylan’s Mr. Jones. (Woe is the teenager who says “The Beatles are OK, I guess,” due to lack of research.) In other words, something is happening here, but what it is hidden from you, until you break past the barriers of unfamiliarity and absorb what the artist is trying to say. It’s the same with any new record by a band you do like. I admit I still haven’t put in the effort required to form a full opinion. One of these days, all shall be revealed.

The gig was packed with young dudes and their lady-friends, all having their moments, all standing (unlike the Modest Mouse show I caught at the same venue), and I thought about how music will never sound quite as sweet and meaningful as when your young. Everyone there was friendly-one guy behind me even offered me half a beer. There were no takers.

As for the Jacket, they remained in the pocket, but were surprisingly mellow for much of the show. They didn’t turn the guitars up to “11” until the last few songs, where they morphed into the band I remembered-a whirlwind of hair, once more.


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