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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Revealing every last impulse and feeling

June 10, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Pop Music Critic
  • MY MORNING JACKET: Frontman Jim James (right, with guest performer M. Ward) opens up on ?Evil Urges.?
MY MORNING JACKET: Frontman Jim James (right, with guest performer M. Ward)… (Chris Pizzello / Associated…)

Oversharing is the latest indulgence embraced by one generation and worrying another. Teens and twentysomethings raised by the Internet have no locks on their hearts and bedrooms. This drives baby boomers, who'd previously owned the market on narcissism, into a fitful frenzy. Kids dropping their own names instead of dropping acid? How wrong.

One aspect of our national character might, however, benefit from all this self-absorption: It could be making us a nation of artists. Oversharing, after all, is often the soul of creative expression. In the performing arts, the willingness to violate propriety and open up the self can make the difference between an admirable effort and one that blows people away.

Two new pop releases illustrate the benefits of well-wrought oversharing. "Evil Urges" is the fifth studio album from the Kentucky-bred rock band My Morning Jacket. "I Know You're Married but I've Got Feelings Too" is the second from the Canadian American singer-songwriter http://http:\marthawainwright.com. On the surface, these albums have little in common. But they both risk an emotional and sonic forcefulness that doesn't quite fit in with the well-managed poses many pop stars strike today. And they're both fantastic.

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Soulful hospitality

My Morning Jacket has been moving steadily toward its big moment since releasing its first album, "The Tennessee Fire," in 1999. Pegged early on as hippie Southern jammers, MMJ gradually showed its mastery of influences ranging from classic R&B to Pink Floyd. The group got pegged again, this time as "the American Radiohead," as its reputation for transcendent live shows began rivaling that of the English artistes.

But while Radiohead's expansiveness always has had a stern undercurrent -- they worked for it, it means something -- MMJ's vibe is warm and loose. It's always a pleasure to hear bandleader Jim James find new ways to turn his trilling tenor into a roar, and though he wrote the songs and is always firmly at the helm on their execution, his compositional approach is based on allowing his mates to stretch out.

This effusiveness makes MMJ utterly lovable. The band overshares, not in a confessional sense, but in the way bands have since Led Zeppelin first trolled the Earth: by claiming a huge space with its sound and reimagining the world within it. Most groups seek to dominate within these imaginary worlds -- think of Zep's "Kashmir" or Metallica's "Enter Sandman" -- but MMJ's encroachment is gentler: a welcome embrace.

What's been missing in MMJ's sound, until now, is a strong sense of personal expressiveness. James has said in recent interviews that he's not always quite sure of his own identity, and that vagueness has shown in his songwriting. But on "Evil Urges," James remedies that. He leads the band firmly into the album's songs, making sure each solidifies into a strong statement rather than just billowing around in a cloud of influences. In these settings, his philosophical musings become more grounded; they seem to come from the flesh, not just a disembodied, blissed-out mind.

"I need a human right by my side," James sings on the album's second track, and among other things, "Evil Urges" is a chronicle of that aspiration. James puts on various costumes -- the soul brother, the country crooner, the indie brat -- to find himself and connect with others. Playing around with pop styles becomes a metaphor for the search for human connection. The band has fun figuring out what each offers, turning silly on the funk breakdown "Highly Suspicious," seductive on the countrypolitan "Librarian" and plain sweet on the yacht-rocking "Thank You Too!"

James' lyrical expressions of fulfilled or disappointed longing combine with the extroverted song structures on "Evil Urges" to make this a sexy bunch of songs, even when the desire expressed is for an unnamed god or for humanity as a whole. (That hot bespectacled bookworm does get her due.) Already beloved by a growing cult, MMJ reaches out in a different way here, becoming more accessible without shrinking its ambitions.

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A woman in full

My Morning Jacket's oversharing happens on a major scale, as the band offers up its magnanimous sound as a source of inspiration and a way into love. Martha Wainwright is more traditional in her methods of self-exposure, though she's never hackneyed. The daughter of two famous singer-songwriters and the sister of another, Wainwright has spent much time struggling to figure out how to best stand her own ground. Now she's not only found her place, she's set it ablaze.

On "I Know You're Married but I've Got Feelings Too," her second solo album on the Zoe/Rounder label, Wainwright dares to do what far too few artists can in today's waxed-and-Spanxed cultural climate. She gives ferocious, tender voice to female desire, conjuring scenes and dreams that don't fit within the tightly managed image of femininity so dominant today.

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