Everything is coming together for this to be the moment for My Morning Jacket. They’ve built their reputation steadily over the years on their lights-out live shows and a slew of massive and brilliant southern-dipped rock albums. But with 2003’s It Still Moves and even more so with 2005’s Z, My Morning Jacket’s buzz has been picking up momentum and they have become full-fledged big wigs in the indie rock world and are poised to bust out in an even bigger way in 2008.
But while this is the right time for My Morning Jacket to shine, Evil Urges is not the right album. The classic rock bliss of At Dawn, the giant guitar onslaught of It Still Moves, the murky soulful wanderings of Z—any of those albums would befit a breakout for My Morning Jacket. But instead, the articles and magazine covers and TV appearances look to be piling up behind Evil Urges, an album that could have been so much more than it is.
Strangely, though, it is not the album’s most experimental moments that derail it. The title track, which doubles as the lead single, is a step out on a limb for the band to be sure. For much of the song, the guitars are turned down and play second fiddle to Jim James as he belts out the falsetto we first heard him testing on Z. The blue light soul of it becomes one of the most charming moments on the album, and the lilting chorus glides nicely into the double-guitar outburst that rises up in the song’s middle.
Later, on “Highly Suspicious”, James keeps his Prince-aping high register, but the band backing him switches gears from soul ballad to metallic funk, and while it isn’t the band’s finest moment, the crunch of guitars and goofball growling in the chorus plant just enough tongue in the cheek to make for a fun experiment.
Other songs on Evil Urges stick closer to the band’s guitar-driven rock roots. “I’m Amazed” and “Aluminum Park” are a couple of the best moments as the band lets loose with all the energy they bring on stage, and James croons and wails over the tracks with an unshakable joy. Late in the record, there is a shining moment in “Smokin’ from Shootin’” which is a nice evolution of Z‘s muted, bluesy sound.
But too often these songs are undone by the album’s severe overproduction. The sweet curl of James’ voice, before honey-drenched in reverb, is lacquered with a saccharin sheen throughout the album that drains it of its natural soul. “Thank You Too” could be another in a long line of great ballads from the band, but the mix mistakenly downplays its guitars in favor of melodramatic string arrangements. “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Part 1” buries itself in overlapping synth lines and pumps James’ vocals through an unnecessary spaced-out filter. “Part 2” closes the record with its lowest point, reworking the song to sound like a bloated disco mega-mix. Even the great “I’m Amazed” can’t totally pull free of the overbearing production, as the tumbling guitar riffs that drive the song start off subtle before they get dropped down in the mix to become almost nonexistent. Similarly, “Remnants” starts off as the album’s most snarling rocker, but as the song goes on keys overtake the big guitars, sometimes even battling with them to muddle an otherwise clear track. And while the song has the biggest string-bending guitar solo on the album, it still sounds too washed out to make its full impact.
In the hands of another band, Evil Urges might border on unlistenable. But it is hard to completely dismiss the album if only for how much fun the band seems to be having. The production is full of missteps—big ones—but you at least get the feeling those missteps are done in search of their own vision, and not in service of a market niche or target demographic. And there are a couple of small moments here that remind us My Morning Jacket can still knock it out of the park. But Evil Urges sounds like an album that falls short of its mark, committing the whole to a sound that ultimately weakens and breaks down its parts. Many of these tracks will probably translate well on stage with the band free of all this studio polish—some are already solid additions to their live arsenal—but on the album they sound deflated. The future may be now for My Morning Jacket, but their past sounded so much better.
// Notes from the Road
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