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 » Full Dark, No Stars - Stephen King's new novella questions mankind's ability to trust others.
[02.21.2011 by Bridget Doyle]

MUSIC

 » The Top 30 Albums of 2010 - Fashionably, fabulously late, our favorite music (and believe me, there was a LOT) of 2010, the year that some have called the best year for music ever. And only some of those fools work here. Plenty of usual suspects, lots of ties and a few surprises that I won't spoil, including our unexpected #1.
[12.24.2010 by The LAS Staff]

MUSIC

 » Live: Surfer Blood/The Drums at Lincoln Hall, Chicago, IL - Remember when Weezer used to put together records that you could sing along to and rock out to? That's what Surfer Blood's show was like!
[11.04.2010 by Cory Tendering]

Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
»Screaming Females
Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
»Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
»Deerhunter
Halcyon Digest
4AD
No Age - Everything in Between
»No Age
Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
»Robyn
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Konichiwa
The Walkmen - Lisbon
»The Walkmen
Lisbon
Fat Possum
My Morning Jacket
Z
ATO Records

Rating: 8.5/10 ?


October 7, 2005
Beneath the bales of soft-serve psychedelic reverb and Crazy Horse-chasing jamming that characterized My Morning Jacket's prior efforts, there has always been a distinct, interesting voice. Front man and lyricist Jim James has consistently tapped the lump-in-the-throat of the human experience, wrapping his emotional mining in epic swirl and naked sincerity that would come off as cloying or forced if it were anything other than an expression of a complex, highly-developed artistic persona.

Z continues to explore the band's voice, but in a different manner than past works. MMJ's musical palate has radically expanded: the reverb and alt-country trappings remain, but they no longer dominate the band's aesthetic. In nodding to U2, John McLaughlin, Sunny Day Real Estate, Mercury Rev, The Clash and countless other icons through a holistic approach to the pop canon, James and his band mates refuse to let sonics define them; it's the whole "so much style that it's wasted" bit that Stephen Malkmus sang about. The structural expansiveness of MMJ's seven minute barnburners has been translated into a formal breadth that draws attention to the spiritual twine holding this diverse song cycle together.

The band spends a great deal of time polarizing their warring sensibilities into individual songs. The bombastic, soul-tinged arena rock of "Gideon" coexists with the slide guitar and hand percussion bareness of "Knot Comes Loose". Electronic blips, programmed poly-rhythms and breathy "ooh"s and "aah"s dominate opener "I," while raging phallic guitar scales assert themselves in closer "Dondanti." James lets his earnestness run free through a soaring, textured closed space in "It Beats for You," then tosses off a cranking honky-tonk ditty about ice cream with "What a Wonderful Man."

By setting up these opposites, the band makes their moments of conflict all the more striking. "Off the Record" has a stylistic mishmash that feels like a full body workout for MMJ. A surf guitar riff sets the stage, the verse settles into a frat dub rhythm, the chorus' group chant conjures pub room camaraderie, and the coda slinks around in a midnight jazz fusion mood. Idiosyncrasy almost completely gives way to pop sensibility; the gang vocals and frequent background shouts and cheers suggest that the song is the product of a communal creative process, while the tune's genre melting hints that it's intended to resonate with multiple listening communities. At the same time, it's still undeniably MMJ; no specific aspects of it are alien to the band's oeuvre. The song feels like a tense compromise between maverick individualism and populist catering; it's a glorious slice of unadulterated pop, but its unity is tenuous and maybe even volatile.

James calls the band's trademark sincerity to task in "Into the Woods," where he juxtaposes a dim life's-a-bitch outlook with absurdist imagery (a burning kitten, a baby in a blender) and a self-deprecating masturbation joke. A carnival Wurlitzer gives the impression that the song's world is a sort of funhouse, with the punch lines coming at the singer's expense. With this song, MMJ exploit the conflict that's always existed between their intense emotional content and their inherently ridiculous affinity for marathon concerts and heavy metal haircuts. They don't quite iron out this tension, but then again, neat packages don't always make for compelling art.

The album's irony culminates with "Anytime": its racing tempo, driving chord progression and high flying guitars create a palpable sense of urgency, furthered when James cries, "I hope it's not too late." The song seems to want to deliver an emotional bum rush, with voice and accompaniment matching tone and delivery to hammer an impression home; this desire is complicated, though, when James encounters a lack of faith in his ability to communicate: "Boy, you better learn to express yourself." The song's triumphant bent takes on a bitter aftertaste once it becomes clear that its narrator can't communicate what he ultimately wishes to. As it flounders in the cold light of its own futility, the track becomes a poignant illustration of its epiphany.

That Z's greatest artistic triumph captures a character's squirming failure should come as no surprise. Trembling prayers and quivering knees have always prevailed in the eye of MMJ's bluster guitar machismo. Though the band may have become a bit more comfortable with their pop instinct, their art's still as vulnerable as ever. In trading a whirlwind for a collage, James and his cohorts have turned an elemental force into insoluble rubber cement.

Reviewed by Phillip Buchan
A one-time music director at WUOG in Athens, Phillip is into college radio, literature, writing, buying records, going to shows, talking to friends, learning -- pretty much the same stuff that all of us priveledged, (pseudo?)intellectual Americans are into.

See other reviews by Phillip Buchan

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