[3 June 2003]
My Morning Jacket
Photo credit: Blender
Burning Brides are cool. Just ask lead singer Dimitri Coats—he’ll tell you. “Don’t you think we’re pretty cool? I think we’re pretty cool,” he gleefully volunteered during the band’s recent show in Indianapolis, Indiana.
I can forgive Parks his tedious self-aggrandizement. He’s just talking, and after all, hubris is a fashionable rock star accessory. Later, he went on to wonder aloud, “Would you like us better if we wore matching outfits?”
Parks’ playful snipe at the White Stripes got me wondering: would I like the White Stripes less if they didn’t wear matching outfits? Do the White Stripes sleep in the same hotel room after shows? Do they wear matching pajamas? Is there a risk-taking venture capitalist out there willing to fund my idea for porcelain Jack and Meg White statuettes?
Meanwhile, Burning Brides finished their umpteenth song. They weren’t headlining, but one got the feeling that they thought otherwise. Their set carried on for well over an hour, as my efforts to silence them via mind control failed repeatedly.
Perhaps I’ve being a little hard on the Philadelphia trio. They’ve got some good things going for them. For instance, their bassist, Melanie Campbell, is renowned for being able to puke in the middle of a performance without missing a note. Sonically, they’ve carved out a not-altogether-disagreeable sound: Think Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth without all of the noise, complexity, and nuance. Or a more melodic AC/DC with inflectionless Jesus and Mary Chain-like vocals that tend to build to a bleating wail toward the chorus. Some people will really like Burning Brides—particularly those who remain in thrall of the still-somehow-chugging garage rock revival.
Burning Brides eventually brought their balls-out pop metal to a merciful close, and My Morning Jacket came on next. Whereas the Burning Brides were admirably energetic but clearly one-dimensional, My Morning Jacket were startlingly idiosyncratic. Previous to the show, I had only listened to a small amount of their recorded material. Based on the little I had heard, I’d decided that they were gloomy folksters with a penchant for melancholy pop melodies, and most likely a bunch of fey college boys.
The surprises came quickly. To begin, My Morning Jacket are not fey. They are categorically mannish, Kentucky-bred men. Furthermore, they are hirsute to an impressive degree. A group trip to Great Clips would yield enough hair to accommodate a whole chemo ward. They use their manes to terrific theatrical effect while performing, mopping the air with Metallica-like head heaving. And just to make completely sure that my preconceived notions of them were thoroughly shattered, the lead singer and guitarist Jim James brandished a V-shaped guitar (!). No, they were not fucking around, and they kind of scared me.
My fears were allayed when James stepped up to the mic, his face draped with a curtain of red hair, and sang the opening lines of “The Way That He Sings”. It sounds corny, but it’s true: The lyrics to the song actually describe rather well how I feel about seeing James sing live: “It’s just the way that he sings, not the words that he says.” I want to compare James’ plaintive tenor to Neil Young, but there’s a spectral quality to James’ voice that defies comparison. He suggests despair, while at the same time invoking something bright and pure. The rest of My Morning Jacket are a stellar supporting cast, but the truth can’t be denied: With an average singer, they would be little more than an Allman Brothers knock-off. James takes what is essentially a bar band and gives them a vulnerability that makes your heart hurt. He gives them real soul.