Praise be: fourth album from Jim James and his 21st Century southern rockers
In the last decade, rock’n’roll has seen more than its fair share of false prophets.Yet anyone who has heard Jim James talk evangelically of the redemptive power of reverb, or had the good fortune to witness Louisville’s My Morning Jacket in mid-flight, will know that this is a group capable of finally cracking the Da Vinci code pursued by everyone from Bono to Bobby Gillespie to Jason Pierce: spiritual communion and guitar-led incandescence in one hairy package. All of which made the shock departure of MMJ’s lead guitarist Johnny Quaid and keyboardist Danny Cash in 2003 so devastating, and this triumphant resurrection so exhilarating.
If 1999’s Tennessee Fire and 2001’s At Dawn served as natural markers for the sprawling echo-chamber epics of 2003’s It Still Moves, Z is an abrupt volte-face. Gone are the week-long jams, in their place a previously well-hidden pop sensibility. James has talked before of his desire to harness the unifying dancefloor appeal of hip-hop to make ‘sad, mysterious dance music’ and, incredibly, with Z he’s pulled it off.
“Gideon” tackles the thorny subject of faith in the 21st century (“Religon should appeal to the hearts of the young/Who are you/ What have you become?”). “Lay Low” is an exquisite six-minute concession to guitar soloing, whilst when James barks “I hope I didn’t wait too long!” in country-soul stomper “Anytime”, the despair is as red-raw as Nirvana.
Throughout James sings like a schizophrenic angel, pinballing between Jeff Buckley-esque falsetto (“Dondante”), Ferry-esque drawl (“What A Wonderful Man”) and his trademark warble, reaching a peak on Clash-like skank “Off The Record” when he addresses the dark days behind him and bawls: “You got to know that we will change/ But keep it off the record!” After which the song melts into a sublime Floyd-like dreamscape warmed to perfection by – who else? – veteran Brit producer John Leckie.
Sadly, in a world where corporate strategies dictate global success, this gothic fusion of rock, funk, country and soul may well remain on the margins. But if you felt there was something missing at the end of X&Y, then you’ll find it in Z.