This blog, despite my occasional scholarly/nerdy detailing, is mostly about my impressions of music that I listen to. I’m not a professional critic and so I can’t always bring the context that they can. In this case I have exactly one album by My Morning Jacket and have never heard another – so I can’t liken it to their other albums, can’t say where it fits in their developmental timeline.
I might also be thankful that I’m not a professional critic. When I started this blog I had a backlog of music that I found at least interesting but hadn’t really got around to listening to and my bank had a scheme where by clients could use their loyalty points to purchase from iTunes at a discounted rate. And I was out of a job so whiling away my time forming conclusions about an album a week seemed like a good idea. And I enjoy it – though employment has reduced my listening time (this is what you call the lesser of evils) – but I found it harder than I expected, and especially having to do it once a week. I suspect the really good guys (Robert Christgau, say, or Richard Haslop or George Graham) have the ability and the confidence to decide very quickly on the merits of some album or another and the knowledge to put it into some kind of context. I can’t see how they can do it otherwise (and Haslop is a partner in a law firm, so he has things other than listening to music that demand his time).
But enough about them and me.
A lot of people I know seem to think that good guitar based music (and they often conflate “good” and “guitar based”) died out sometime in the 80s. Well, it is the case that at some point what got played on radio and on TV changed – apparently because as market research got more scientific and more accurate the record companies found out that more people than they’d thought were listening to country and hip-hop and so marketing strategies and radio play lists changed.
But all that means is that you have to look in other places to find music operating in an aesthetic space that you might feel more comfortable in (or buy Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull box sets).
This album certainly nods it’s head a little to more contemporary sounds (though how recent and non-rock the synth bass opening to the first track is is I think quite arguable), drum playing fashions have changed quite noticeably since Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts, and there’s some sound effect loops (the Beatles used those, it’s not the end of the world) but at it’s heart there are riffing guitars and power chords and the energy and the power that these can convey. It’s recognisably a rock record (and it’s not alone, there’s plenty of music being made that is fairly obviously categorised as rock and in which the guitar plays a key role, but I also like to listen to and write about world music and stuff with mandolins and banjos to the fore and so. However I have already covered a recent-ish guitar rock album).
I like this record best when the band stretches out on the longer tracks and jams a little. There’s been some theorising about Don McLean’s “American Pie” (apparently it recently enjoyed an anniversary) and the attention span of the modern listener, but several songs here go past the mythical 3 minutes 30 seconds mark, and a couple go deep into extra time. They make the most of these with extended passages, usually erring on the side of not saying too much and going for what is dynamically effective. If you like the sound of a well placed power chord rather than auto-tuned voices then you should check this one out.
I found the lyrics quite obscure. Some critics have suggested that the poppy “What A Wonderful Man” is about Jesus Christ, and I can kind of see how you could force them into that interpretation – but it would have to be a force. The lyrics don’t spell it out. The lines “From the driver’s seat in the dark / He popped a tape in the dash of his car” are either metaphorical or just about something (or somebody) else. But lyrically it’s not banal album (we can’t all be proper poets like Leonard Cohen) and the point, it seems to me, is the simple joys of a tight rock band with, it must be said, a pretty good guitar sound going on.
Classic rock for today? The next generation’s classic rock? Or just a reminder that the modern music scene isn’t just Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and crass thump-a-thump disposable pop music (a couple of years ago My Morning Jacket were involved in a package tour that was headlined by Bob Dylan and also featured Wilco and the Richard Thompson Band – so there’s more rock guitaring than you might think going on and finding audiences). Well there’s always sorts of ways to react – and people a lot younger than me might not even understand that there’s this sort of pondering to do because the reality is that although what hits the charts has changed, there’s still plenty of original, high quality, guitar-driven rock music being produced and finding audiences and this is a fine example.