Z. My Morning Jacket.
2005, ATO. Producer: John Leckie, Jim James.
IN A NUTSHELL: Straight-ahead rock, with just enough bends to satisfy. Leader Jim James has a distinctive voice that soars and floats but is always out front, no matter what style song he writes – from jam-band psychedelia to three-minute rave-ups. The rest of the band keeps it all interesting. A record with so many great songs that it’s hard to pick a favorite
I have a soft spot in my musical heart for polka. Maybe it’s in my genes, as my family is generations-deep into its initial settlement of Pennsylvania Dutch Country, and Pennsylvania and Polka go hand-in-hand. Maybe it’s because my grandfather’s band, “Die Lauterbach German Band,” played polkas and oompah songs and so the music is in my blood. Or maybe it’s simply because as a young child of 4 or 5, I had a stack of about twenty-five 45-rpm polka records in my basement, almost all of them from the Chicago-area label “Jay Jay Records,” and I played them incessantly and “marched around the basement” while I listened, as my mom has told me1.
Those polka records were my first experiences in active participation in my own personal enjoyment of music. I’d go downstairs to the little portable record player2, take out some 45s, and place them on the turntable. Then I commenced marching (apparently).
The experience of handling the 45s and reading their labels and watching them spin contributed greatly to my enjoyment. I can recall the fascination I felt eyeing those 45s pressed into clear, yellow plastic, and reading the sparse information provided: “POLKA PAL POLKA. (E. Blatnick). EDDIE BLATNICK and His Polka Pals. 237B. Diana Music. 2:24.” Who was Mr. Blatnick? Where did his Pals sit while they made the record? Diana Music?? Who is she? The records didn’t have sleeves, they just lay naked and unashamed inside an old candy box3, so I couldn’t find any other information about them.
In addition to the polka records, there were other 45s in that candy box as well. The label I most liked from the non-polka selections was “Drum Boy Records,” which was also from Chicago, and was also run by the same guy who ran Jay Jay Records4, Walter “Li’l Wally” Jagiello. The song I liked best from this label was “Let’s Go Go Go White Sox,” by Captain Stubby & Buccaneers5 (with Li’l Wally Orch.). I wasn’t a White Sox fan, but I loved baseball – plus it is an excellent song to march to, and I must have appreciated that. Another Drum Boy record I enjoyed was “My Little Josephine,” – a watered-down, decade-late (it was recorded in 1965) “Rock Around the Clock” ripoff performed by The Don Ralke Orchestra6. It’s pretty bad, but does feature a pretty awesome lead guitar throughout. But I can’t imagine its orch-rock swing inspired much marching in me.
That box of 45s contained so much joy! Besides the polka records and Drum Boy singles, there were lots of pop song novelties from the 50s that I enjoyed (again, likely with minimal marching.) Frankie Laine and Jimmy Boyd packed a 1-2 punch with the single “Let’s Go Fishin’” backed with “Poor Little Piggy Bank.” Phil Harris caused my kindergarten mind to run wild with his classic “The Thing.” And my little brain deduced something vaguely sexual in Guy Mitchell’s “Chicka-Boom,” about a woman whose “shoes paddy-wack in the front and the back while her yellow curls go swingin’.”
But the joy wasn’t simply from the sounds of the songs that I heard, it was also contained in the physical stack of plastic that I could hold in my hands, and swing onto a hooked thumb. There was joy in the words on the labels, the numbers and letters coding secrets to me: “45-JB-1-244” on a Jubilee 45; “9-62033” on a Coral 45; “249 A” on one of those Jay Jay Records polkas. I derived joy from the motivation and physical actions required to hear those songs. I had to go down to the basement, find the box of records, open the record player, select some songs and place them on the turntable. I had to monitor the songs, and be ready to remove the record before the needle ran into the label and made that dreaded clicking sound. There was a dance that the records and the record player and I performed together, a connection between us, that was accompanied by those songs we produced together. When the music was good – those polkas, the White Sox, the novelty songs – it all felt right. When the music was bad – the Doris Day, Tony Bennett, Julius LaRosa – it felt as if all three of us were disappointed together. Listening to music was more than just listening to music. It was a process that involved my body and my mind.
Of course, 45s and 33 1/3 LPs were the main medium for listening to music for all of my young life, so the whole-body experience became deeply ingrained. In my teen years, I got into the convenience of cassettes – particularly blank cassettes, which allowed me to record my albums and take them with me and listen through my wonderful Walkman. This process definitely involved a physical interaction with the media, however if I really liked a record I always preferred having the official label release over a pirated cassette. I wanted to read the packaging, to see what the artist wanted me to know about the work, to hold something in my hands while my boom-box hissed along. Sometime in college I was introduced to “Compact Disc technology,” CDs. People liked the clear sound and the convenience7, and you still had a little something to hold and read while you listened. There was a bit of backlash to the new-fangled things – most people who are into such things agree the sound quality on CD is inferior to albums, although most people NOT into such things can’t even tell the difference. Some artists were reluctant to release material on the new medium. Others complied, but got their little digs in at the rise of convenience over sound. I eventually switched over as well, which must be obvious if you’re reading this website.
CDs began the digital music revolution, but by the time the revolution really took off in the late 90s – when the new 1s and 0s of popular music were swept up in the giant tidal wave of the internet, and together they crushed the seemingly indestructible ship, the S.S. Recording Industry – my life no longer had enough time to devote to the ever-changing modes of compiling recorded music. Napster, KaZaa, LimeWire … they all came and went with barely a disruption to my music consumption habits8, which remained confined to CDs and the occasional vinyl bought at a yard sale. But at some point around 2006, the file-sharing storms had mostly subsided, the waters had calmed and I decided to dive in among the flotsam and jetsam remaining after the wreckage of the Recording Industry. So much detritus remained, and among such driftwood as Rhapsody, Zune, and Y! Music, I selected what seemed to be the most stable piece of crap on the sea, ignored the fact that it was drifting further and further away from the Microsoft shores I recognized, and joined iTunes.
Around this same time, my local Don’t-Call-It-An-Oldies-Station was playing a great song by a singer with a high-pitched voice for a man called “Off The Record.” It was catchy, had some nice guitar … The band was My Morning Jacket – a name I’d heard over the past few years but with whom I was unfamiliar. I liked it enough to buy the band’s CD. Inspired by some twenty-something co-workers who were also music fans, I decided to make this album my first official9 digital album purchase. Remembering my love for the meta-information in CD booklets and album covers, and wishing to hold something in my hands, I also downloaded the “Digital Booklet.”
It wasn’t the same. As much as I liked the record (and there are only 59 records I like better!) I still didn’t feel connected to it in the same way that I’ve felt with other records – even those I like less. I don’t picture this record in my head the same way I picture others. Most records I love feel like a lake or a pond I can swim in, and the physical object – whether a cassette case, album cover or CD package – is like the platform tethered in the middle of that lake. It’s the place I can swim to and lean on, where I jump off to get to another part of the lake. I can hang out on the platform. Or I can spend the day at the lake and never even touch the platform, but it’s nice to know it’s there if I ever want it. And the digital booklet was no substitute – it was more like a small, inflatable raft with a slow leak, tethered to the shore: practically useless, entirely forgettable. Z has always felt like a lake without a platform.
But I loved the music immediately. Naturally, I burned a CD.
“Off The Record,” that first song I heard by the band, is a fun number that begins with a a guitar riff that sounds straight out of an old Western. It soon transitions into a sort of Reggae song with a straight rock beat.
After the verse, there’s another catchy guitar riff, and the song pumps along with a nice groove. Bandleader/guitarist/singer Jim James has a tenor voice, a la Roy Orbison, and it’s the distinctive sound of MMJ. He has fun making these songs, as many songs feature all kinds of weird sounds and other goings-on in the background – such as the scream-along “right, right, right” around the 1:50 mark. The lyrics seem to be a straightforward request for discretion from a partner. The version played on the radio (which has a pretty cool video) ends at about 3 minutes. But the album version demonstrates what it is about this record that really captured me: the final two-and-a-half minute psychedelic instrumental that continues after 3 minutes. It features some organ, conga drums, some more strange spoken word stuff, and subtle guitar work. It’s the type of song that helped the record show up at #23 on Rolling Stone magazine’s “40 Greatest Stoner Album” list.
Another song in the same vein is the 70s-rock-feeling “Lay Low.”
It’s got terrific guitar work through the verse and chorus, but drummer Patrick Hallahan is the star of this song. His high-hat keeps the beat steady through a choppy rhythm, propelling the song forward all the time. James sings in a lower register this time, prodding a lover to stay in tonight and chill, but his voice takes off around 1:20, just before that cool riff re-enters. The melody is captivating despite its cluttered wordiness. It’s a nice little song that at the three minute mark explodes into a guitar workout, and by 3:30 becomes a crushing guitar duel between James and lead guitarist Carl Broemel. It’s a song you can get lost in, with a definite whiff of 70s Neil Young/Lynyrd Skynyrd taking over the final two minutes. It’s great to hear a band like this let loose and wail for a while.
The band lets loose on many of the songs on Z, playing with abandon and recorded in a way that gives the record a live feel. A short song that rips nonetheless is the terrific “What a Wonderful Man.”
According to reports, it’s a song about a former friend of James’s who committed suicide. It’s a great, ramshackle song that sounds like its about to fall apart several times, built on Hallahan’s sloppy (in a good way) drums and Broemel’s 70’s-sounding Southern Rock lead guitar. It’s short and to the point, with a squeal of joy from James closing it out.
James’s voice – squealing, shouting, reaching for highs and bending for lows – is the keystone of this album, and one of the most recognizable in rock over the past ten or fifteen years. It’s used to full effect on what may be my favorite song on the album, “Gideon.”
It begins simply with a kick drum and an arpeggiated guitar riff, and James’s subdued vocals. After about 50 seconds the build starts, cymbals crash … only to pull back and introduce the bass guitar, which helps build the song once more … dramatically this time, to James’s howling at 2:00 – truly a vocal expression on par with some of the great rock and roll screams of all time. It’s a song that is built on feeling and suspense, repetitive but natural, containing enigmatic yet spiritual lyrics.
Jim James’s lyrics are of the oblique style in which nothing is stated directly and listeners can make inferences for themselves. And in a song such as the terrific opener, “Wordless Chorus,” as the title suggests, lyrics are entirely absent from the chorus – James choosing instead to use his impressive vocalizations to convey meaning. But James can use his vocal instrument subtly, as well, as on the quiet, gorgeous “Knot Comes Loose.” A similar vocal style is evident on the country-tinged, pedal-steel-featuring “How Could I Know.” It’s an example of James’s knack for writing songs that sound like they’ve been around for years – he writes tunes that are simple and memorable. But he can pull off the unusual as well, like the circusy “Into the Woods,” or the lovely, intricate “It Beats 4 U.”
Vying with the aforementioned “Gideon” for title of my favorite song on this record is the straightforward rocker “Anytime.” It’s got a great, ripping guitar intro and the drums once again are sloppy-in-a-good-way, pushing the song forward constantly.
The thumping, ascending bass line in the chorus meld nicely with James’s melody. The lyrics admit a problem with communication that the singer’s trying to work on, with the help of wisdom from Madonna.
I suppose it says a lot about a record when I call two songs my “favorite.” So in praising Z, I might as well throw a third selection into the ring as my favorite. The eerie, epic, multi-faceted jam of the would-be album closer10 “Dondante.”
James’s voice once again carries things here, particularly at the beginning of the song where he’s mostly accompanied simply by drums. But as he sings his mystifying lyrics, the song builds to a nice quiet guitar solo about 2:35 that bridges things until 3:30, when the band enters with full force and grows to still another level of urgency and energy. By 5:30, the energy has gone away as quickly as it entered. There’s a dreamlike quality to the song, again justifying the album’s place on a list of Best Stoner Albums. “Dondante” has the feel of one of those epic songs you’d hear on the radio in the 70s late at night while the DJ left the studio to complete a drug buy.
Of course, in the 70s, a DJ would have handled the actual vinyl album, could have read the liner notes on the record sleeve, might have gotten lost in the cover art; but by 2005 DJs were just clicking icons on a screen. There is so much progress and genius and hard work and wonder inherent in the fact that what 40 years ago took so much equipment – turntable, amp, speaker, wires, electricity, a piece of vinyl or plastic to hold – is accomplished today with a few finger swipes and taps. We’ve come so far and gained so much, but to me what we lost was significant, as well. I don’t think it affected my appreciation of Z – but how can I tell? Might a physical connection with this record have placed it higher on the list? Are there albums in the upcoming 59 whose packaging enhanced my experience with the music, the physical and visual senses bolstering the aural, therefore placing it ahead of Z? Did that candy box full of 45s ruin me for albums made after 2000? These are questions I’ll never be able to answer, and maybe they don’t matter. Z is a record I love, and I’ll enjoy it on any medium – even though I can’t march along to it.
“It Beats 4 U”
“What A Wonderful Man”
“Off The Record”
“Into The Woods”
“Knot Comes Loose”
“How Could I Know”