My Morning Jacket, 'Z' (ATO/RCA)

8
Z
Critical Mass
Label: ATO/RCA

by Andrew Beaujon

It's fun to imagine that My Morning Jacket's Jim James composes his songs by wailing into an abandoned railroad tunnel, his beard moist with sweat, his corduroy sport coat flapping rakishly in the updraft. Sadly, it's more likely that he and his band just sit around with a guitar and a tape recorder. But a group with such an epic sound begs for a myth of its own.

Perhaps too often on past releases, MMJ left their songs bobbing in a sea of reverb, and while the tunes on their second major-label record are still well lubricated, producer John Leckie has helped them towel off their oddball anthems so people who like to, you know, hear the snare drum can relate. Z imagines a dance floor covered in sawdust and a musty smell wafting from under the boards. Take "Wordless Chorus": From its opening deep bass burbles to its surf-music vocal harmonies on the refrain to James' gangsta-ish boast that "We are the innovators / They are the imitators," the song is a dizzying race through My Morning Jacket's quirky mixture of alt country, Southern-rock heroics, and '70s AM radio pop. They navigate a ska rhythm on "Off the Record," only to blow the tune to smithereens with an Air-style dubby devolution.

But in spite of all their stony sonic exploration, they never let Z turn into Zzzz; for every moment of ambient weirdness, there's a blast of rock guitar that reminds you that the listener isn't required to do all the work. Somewhere between their love of the blues and their affection for the dark disco of "Blue Monday," Jim James and friends manage to make ambitious music seem like fun. And if that's a scream into the void, then by gum, Jim, shout it out loud.

See also: Mazzy Star, So Tonight That I Might See (Capitol, 1993)

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