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POP MUSIC

A mix of styles suits My Morning Jacket

October 09, 2003|Chris Barton | Times Staff Writer

Bob DYLAN, the Beatles and ... the Muppets?

As strange as those names may look in a grouping, they all bear the same level of importance for Jim James, the singer-songwriter for the Louisville, Ky., quintet My Morning Jacket. Given how his band's spacey blend of alt-country and classic rock deftly avoids genre classification, it's not all that surprising that the soft-spoken 25-year-old would find inspiration from "The Muppet Show's" eclectic mix of puppetry and musical comedy.

"[The show] was an example of what you can do when you have a boundless imagination and don't put any limits on yourself," he says by phone from a tour stop in Milwaukee. "To me Jim Henson was just as much of a genius as John Lennon."

While My Morning Jacket's five-piece lineup is free of any singing frogs or pigs, its unique sound would make any of James' influences proud. Too abstract to be lumped with Southern rock revivalists like the Kings of Leon but too muscular to fit in among neo-psychedelic outfits like the Flaming Lips, the band's sprawling major-label debut on ATO Records, "It Still Moves," scatters those elements, as well as touches of R&B and country, throughout its 72 minutes, yielding an album that sounds fresh yet oddly nostalgic.

"There's this great sort of wash of sound that comes through on their records that you don't really hear anywhere else," says KCRW-FM's Nic Harcourt, who has twice featured My Morning Jacket as a guest on his show "Morning Becomes Eclectic." "I think it's definitely the sound of where they're from. You wouldn't find a band like that on the East or West Coast; it's something coming from the middle of the country."

Binding the sound together, however, is James' lilting, sometimes perfectly off-kilter voice. Coated with enough reverb to sound like Neil Young singing from inside a diving bell, James' echoing vocals take any lyric's existing sentiment, like joy, loss or heartbreak, and expands it to massive, seemingly endless proportions.

"Reverb is like a part of me, it's a subconscious thing," James explains, admittedly mystified by his continuing attraction to the effect. "It started one day at practice when somebody left reverb turned up on the amp. I just stepped up and started singing and all this sound came pouring out. From that day on I haven't enjoyed singing without it."

While his vocals on slow-burning pieces like "Steam Engine" build and intertwine until they resemble a bickering choir of angels, the convertible-ready anthem "One Big Holiday" finds James' voice stretching an opening line as simple as "Waking up / feelin' good and limber" into a triumphant battle cry that captures the freedom of a summer afternoon.

But it's on the gentle ballad "I Will Sing You Songs" that My Morning Jacket is at its most distinctive.

Emerging from a drifting introduction reminiscent of Pink Floyd, James drawls through a series of tentative promises that swell with an additional air of desperation, considering the man sounds as if he's singing from the depths of an enormous cavern -- most likely because he is.

In the name of remaining true to the almighty echo, My Morning Jacket transformed guitarist Johnny Quaid's family farm into not only the band's recording studio, but also its own private laboratory for new and unexpected sources of organic echoes.

"We've got some grain silos, a big three-car garage and a mid-sized bathroom that we mike up and turn into reverb chambers," James says. "We like to try and use natural sources because I love reverb so much."

Although listening to the group's forays into wistful space-folk could lead one to believe this is yet another band of slump-shouldered indie poets along the lines of Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket reveals itself as a whole other animal in its live performances.

Onstage the barefoot James teams with fellow guitarist Quaid, keyboardist Danny Cash and the churning rhythm section of bassist Two-Tone Tommy and drummer Patrick Hallahan to channel pure classic rock swagger that seems well beyond the band's years. Long hair swirls and heads thrash recklessly with the beat in a manner that might recall guitar bands like .38 Special if it weren't for James' bright, resonating voice slicing through the storm. The occasional acoustic interlude proves there's still room for their more delicate moments, but their ferocious stage presence and blue-collar looks deliver a cathartic rock 'n' roll revival that's unfettered by concerns with appearing fashionable.

"We grew up in a scene where there's tons of kids trying to look like indie rock stars, trying to be so cool," James says. "We've always made a point to think more about our music than what we're wearing. All that other stuff's meaningless."

Spoken like a man who knows it's not easy being green.

*

My Morning Jacket

What: My Morning Jacket, with singer-songwriter Patrick Park

Where: Roxy Theatre, 9009 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood

When: Saturday and Sunday, 8 p.m.

Price: $15

Info: (310) 278-9457

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