My Morning Jacket with guest Kathleen Edwards
Oct. 23, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $15, 239-5151
The band called My Morning Jacket carved a nice, critically acclaimed niche for itself with a reverb-drenched, guitar-heavy brew of West Coast psychedelia and soulful Southern rock, circa 1971. The group had an image to match, with hairy heads, Kentucky heritage, a song on a beer commercial and a cameo as a Skynyrd-loving cover band in the latest Cameron Crowe movie, Elizabethtown.
But with its new album, Z, My Morning Jacket takes a full-speed plunge off the precipice, into the land of shape-shifting pop surrealists like Beck, Radiohead, Flaming Lips and Talking Heads.
Why take the risk?
Because great rock bands don’t sit still. “It gets boring for everybody,” says drummer Patrick Hallahan. “We were just trying to break down some boundaries that we had set up.”
After postponing a scheduled Indianapolis show earlier this year due to illness, the quintet will appear Sunday at the Vogue. Followers of the Indy scene may recognize a familiar face on stage: guitarist Carl Broemel, formerly of Old Pike. The special guest is Kathleen Edwards, a Canadian singer-songwriter whose earthy delivery has won a bit of radio play.
My Morning Jacket formed in late ’90s Louisville when a group of teen-age buddies coalesced around the songs and vision of bandleader Jim James. Their sound prompted comparisons to The Band, Neil Young and the Stones, and James’ plaintive vocals and earnest lyrics carried a lonesome, bittersweet flavor more common in classic country music.
For whatever reason, early recordings caught the attention of critics and fans in northern Europe, making the band an international act even before it established itself in the Midwest. My Morning Jacket signed to Dave Matthews’ ATO Records for its third album, 2003’s It Still Moves, a strong, warm and widely praised collection produced by James himself. The lead track, “Mahgeetah,” was featured in a TV spot for Coors’ low-carb beer product, Aspen Edge.
A commercial can be a shot in the arm for up-and-coming bands, but in retrospect, these guys didn’t see it that way. They didn’t even keep the money.
“It felt kind of smarmy, so we donated it to the diabetes foundation,” Hallahan says. “You’re not going to see an Aspen Edge shirt on any of us.”
The touring and increasing pressure on the band proved too much for original members Johnny Quaid and Danny Cash. They left and were replaced in January 2004 by Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster, who had been recommended by mutual friends.
“We went out to L.A. and auditioned 10 people, and Carl and Bo were the first two,” Hallahan says. “They really did their homework and were really enthused about taking this challenge on, and they were on the road with us two weeks later.”
The changing lineup is one reason for the changing sound, he says, along with the decision to record in an upstate New York studio rather than the rural Kentucky location that spawned the previous albums. The band also worked with an outside producer, British music veteran John Leckie, who engineered for the likes of Pink Floyd and George Harrison at Abbey Road before going on to produce landmark albums for the Stone Roses and Radiohead.
Leckie pushed the band for better performances and worked his magic on the mixing board, Hallahan says, but the band’s new direction already was charted in its demo tapes for the album. James had been listening to hip-hop and dance music, oddly enough, and was trying to incorporate those rhythms in his songs.
“As a band, we wanted to get away from ‘hit play and everything goes at once’ — we wanted more space in between the layers,” Hallahan says. “It had much more of a rhythmic basis, and we built atmosphere on top of that.”
Indeed, atmosphere abounds on Z, which was recorded in March and released earlier this month.
The opening cut, “Wordless Chorus,” is dominated by keyboards, electronic beats, heavily treated vocals and plinky, percolating guitars that create an Afro-new wave vibe. “It Beats 4 U” pits acoustic guitars against X-Files synthesizers for a distinct Radiohead effect.
“Off the Record” is a faux-reggae number that carries about as much Rasta credibility as Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er,” but succeeds in being an extremely fun tune, suitable for drunken sing-alongs. Other songs bring to mind the crunchy heartland power pop of Cheap Trick or Big Star.
My Morning Jacket doesn’t fully sound like its previous self until well into the album, when a soaring Allman-style guitar jam occupies the final half of the six-minute epic “Lay Low.”
The overall product may not be as consistent as It Still Moves, but it opens up a limitless horizon for a band that remains relatively young and full of potential. If it annoys a few fans, Hallahan says, so be it.
“I think there was a little skepticism at first, but we couldn’t be happier with the way it sounds,” he says. “Let ’em think what they want.”
Scott Hall writes about music and culture at www.byrdlandstudios.com.