Before listening to Z, everything I knew about My Morning Jacket had nothing to do with their music. They’re Southern! They have beards! They’resofuggingreatyougottahearem!!!
I always view this as a big red flag going in. If most of the buzz surrounding a band has more to do with its image, and not the sounds being made by the band, then said sounds and said band typically do the Big Suck Dance (see: Spree, Polyphonic). Consequently, I was expecting slightly less than not much from this album. Yes, MMJ has been getting big love from our old pal Iron Chef Benjata, but still.
Now that I’ve heard the album front-to-back five or six times, I can understand why so little of what I’ve read has to do with the music: It’s good — sometimes it’s very good — but it’s different-sounding enough that the easiest way to write about it is to use silly, fantastical comparisons. Witness:
Z sounds like Elton John’s 1970s band fronted by the son of Neil Young and Kevin Coyne!
See? Like I said — silly and fantastical. And yet also mostly accurate. The ghosts of Honky Chateau and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road run howling through these songs (right down to the brief burst of “Bennie and the Jets” at the end of “Wordless Chorus” [download]), but where John’s sound during that period was derived through his conscious efforts to inject his Anglo pop with an Englishman’s approximation of American roots music, My Morning Jacket arrives from the opposite direction. Their music acquired its Southern tinges through birth, if not necessarily predilection — unlike the experimental strains that leaven the album. It’s American Gothic music for the thinking iPodder, and I gotta say, I like it. Give “Off the Record” (download) a listen and see if you don’t, too.
Interesting factoid (for me, anyway): Z is the band’s second release for ATO Records, Dave Matthews’ boutique label. For a guy whose own albums have grown increasingly spotty, he’s demonstrated fairly excellent taste in other people’s music.