My Morning Jacket have helped bring soul back to rock’n’roll, with five excellent albums that show singer-guitarist Jim James’ love of Motown, Stax-Volt, and other old-school artists whose music has been criminally relegated to the 99-cent bin.
As the Kentucky-bred band ramps up for the release of Circuital (out May 31), James dug through his collection to pick some of his favorite records of the era, from Pastor T.L. Barnett’s funked-out gospel rave-up “Like a Ship” to Syl Johnson’s 1969 deep cut “Together Forever.” He also told SPIN why ’80s pop-rock group Mike + the Mechanics and a far-out late-’60s Thai psych-rock band are totally worth listening to today.
Hear James’ influences below – and read why he picked them. PASTOR T.L. BARRETT AND THE YOUTH FOR CHRIST CHOIR, “LIKE A SHIP…(WITHOUT A SAIL)”
James digs this 1971 gospel cut (reissued by Light in the Attic) from Chicago activist and preacher Barrett, whose work to bring social and economic development to the city’s South Side was marred when he was discovered to be involved in a pyramid scheme in 1989. (He paid restitution to avoid jail time and continues to preach today.)
“The kids are singing so loud that your stereo is going to explode and the groove being laid down by Barrett, Richard Evans, and drummer Charles Pittman is arguably one of the greatest the good Lord ever beamed down to earth for us to hear,” says James. “Barrett is also singing what so many people feel: ‘I searched for pleasure / But I found pain / I looked for sunshine / But I found rain / Then I looked for my friends / They all walked away / But through all my sorrows / You can hear me say, Hey, I know we can make it.'” SYL JOHNSON, “TOGETHER FOREVER”
James says this overlooked 1969 cut from the Mississippi-born R&B singer rivals the era’s most well-known wake up calls for social and racial equality, such as Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Sly and the Family Stone’s “There’s a Riot Goin’ On.”
“Normally you hear a lot of anger in Johnson’s voice – the sheer sound of it slices through your speakers like an X-Acto Knife,” says James. “And rightfully so: He was singing for equality and his place in the world, when at times it seemed like he wasn’t finding either. But this song shows a positive and hopeful side to what his main message is: believing that the Brotherhood of Man can live forever together in peace and equality. I can’t believe this song is not one of the staples of classic radio.” MIKE + THE MECHANICS, “SILENT RUNNING (ON DANGEROUS GROUND)”
This effervescent, synthed-out single from the British pop-rock group was a Top 40 radio hit in 1985 – but James doesn’t see any reason why it couldn’t be resurrected as a modern-day protest song.
“Some say there is a massive astrological shift taking place right now as dictatorships topple in Egypt and people rise up in mass numbers in places like Wisconsin and Ohio to fight for what they believe is right,” says James. “We are seeing large sections of the population fundamentally questioning their experience and existence, perhaps spurred on by this new revolutionary spirit of longing for real freedom…or perhaps spurred on by this Mike + the Mechanics song, which somehow speaks to me about all that is going on in the world right now. Somehow. It spoke to me once as a child. And it found me again the other day in the freezer section at Whole Foods. ‘Can you hear me running?’ Yes, Mike. I can.” WILLIAM BELL, “EVERYBODY LOVES A WINNER”
James cites this overlooked R&B ballad from the Stax-Volt crooner as one of his favorite late-’60s songs – mostly due to the buttery smooth production and Bell’s silky voice.
“Bell sums up one of life’s truths: ‘Everybody loves a winner, but when you lose, you lose alone,'” says James. “I don’t think that statement is completely true – real friends and family are there for each other through thick and thin – but when I hear this song it reminds me of them… the people who really matter. It’s also all gussied up in near perfect production, sounding as soft as our kitten’s little head when we give her a kiss, and sung by an angel.” UBON PATTANA, “LAM SARAWAN”
Ubon Pattana were an obscure Thai group that emerged in the late-’60s, and their music mixed the far-out adventurousness of American psych with traditional Thai instruments like the khaen and lyrics sung in their native language. James jokes that he first heard them in 1970 – he was born in 1978 – so allow the man a little narrative freedom as he talks about this long-forgotten band:
“It’s 1970. I am in Thailand on a business trip. The plane got in late and after I check into the hotel I find my way into a little corner bar for a drink. As I sip my cocktail and slink down into my booth, the music overtakes me and I know I am in the presence of greatness: This band, Ubon Pattana, three or four kids sunk behind their instruments with big coats and sunglasses on, are just laying down the thickest groove, like they are deeply stoned or half asleep, lost in a highly functional trance.
“And this girl, the sign says her name is Angkana Khunchai…I can’t understand what she is singing, but she is in some kind of real pain and she is just fucking laying it down for everybody, hunched over, holding all her weight up with the mic just wailing. And her sounds that I cannot understand turn into words I’d been thinking about anyway, tossing and turning hopes and fears like we all do, things I’ve been trying to figure out but just haven’t been able to. And now I’m trying to process it all here in Thailand, to find a way to make it all make sense before I have to return home again. And I look up from my reverie and tears are rolling down her cheeks, out from under her sunglasses, and mine are falling onto my pink umbrella, rolling off into some drink I know ill never be able to finish.”