Another side of My Morning Jacket


By Nicole Davis

When fans of My Morning Jacket gush about this Louisville quintet, it’s usually with the band’s dreamy reverb and countrified rock in mind. So it’s not surprising that the opening track on their fourth album “Z” would send some die-hard followers into state of shock. Gone, it seems, are the crashing cymbals and plaintive guitar chords; the first minute, in fact, is almost entirely keyboards. Could these really be the same scruffy boys from Kentucky?

Yes and no. “We went at this album with a less is more approach,” said Patrick Hallahan, the drummer and the most garrulous member of the group. (“If by that you mean I’m an extrovert in a band of introverts,” he clarifies.) “Sure, you can’t please everybody. We thought about that when we were making it, just how radically different some of these songs were from our previous sounds. But I think a lot of people are looking at it as a positive step forward.”

He’s being modest of course—many critics are calling “Z” their best and most diverse album yet. It’s certainly a break from their past, a mirror of the change in MMJ’s own lineup and lives. After touring for their last album, “It Still Moves,” two original band members left (amicably) and were replaced by a new keyboardist, Bo Koster, and guitarist Carl Broemel. The change primed them for more. Instead of recording in their native state, as they’d always done, they decamped to New York’s legendary Allaire Studios in the Catskills, where they hired John Leckie to co-produce the album, something singer Jim James had previously done on his own. It seems strange then, that all these new beginnings would be encapsulated by a title that means, essentially, The End.

“There are many interpretations for it,” Hallahan says, who manages to seem earnest even when he’s being cryptic. “The only real answer I can give you is ‘Why Not Z?’ It’s just a powerful letter; it has this mystique to it.”

Same goes for the garble of voices snuck into the tinkling keyboards and synths at the end of “Off the Record.” It calls to mind Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” an album John Leckie engineered. Coincidence?

“It was our idea,” says Hallahan. “We had a bunch of secrets to the universe but we didn’t know what to do with them. It was recorded backwards, and it was one of us, but I’m not gonna say who.”

What is clear on the album is Leckie’s influence. The songs are tighter, more Radiohead (another band he produced), less spacey, 70s jam band. Whereas the M.O. during the last album was to “hit record and everyone starts playing as loud and as hard as they can and then hit stop,” on “Z,” everyone exercised restraint.

“By playing a little bit less here and there, you make the sound more full instead of more jumbled. The instruments actually stands out more,” says Hallahan. The only downside is the album’s length: at 48 minutes, it’s by far their shortest studio album. But that’s what the repeat button is for—and why so many people are anxiously awaiting their live show on October 18th at Webster Hall. The band is known for its marathon jams and strange spectacles on stage—at Bonnaroo, they played alongside a giraffe, a white wigged Revolutionary figure, and an Easter Island head. To what end is anyone’s guess, but the cumulative effect of being on the road last time around is what pushed their two former bandmates, Johnny Quaid and Danny Cash, to leave.

“We’re all still friends,” Hallahan says. “It wasn’t a bad [breakup]. It was a bad time just because they were in so much misery from touring. But we all still love each other.”

They’re very much in touch, too. They just attended Quaid’s wedding, and Cash designed the album, which features a lot of odd, otherworldly imagery.

Like their previous albums, the songs on “Z” also touch on religious themes. Phrases like “loving flock” and references to Gideon on the song by the same name are all familiar terrain for Jim James, who makes no bones about his spirituality. But many of the lyrics seem concerned with more temporal things, like on “Wordless Chorus,” when James boasts “We are the innovators/They are the imitators,” in his signature, ethereal voice.

Hallahan credits their new sound as much to Jim James’ matured songwriting skills as to the band’s newest members. “The transition was pretty seamless,” he says, adding that their addition “has made it neither better nor worse than Danny and Johnny’s. It’s just different.”

But perhaps the difference is overstated. In many ways, “Z” sounds as atmospheric and moody as their last album—only the moods change more frequently. The band cavorts between carnivalesque organs on “Into the Woods,” to rock steady beats on “Off the Record,” before reaching into a familiar, reverb rich treasure like “How Could I Know.”

Despite the buzz about “Z” and their cameo as a southern rock band called “Ruckus” in Cameron Crowe’s new film “Elizabethtown,” Hallahan seems as low-key about their success as when MMJ first started recording six years ago.

“To me it still feels like we’re just getting ready to go on a tour, like we’re all just hanging out and making music together.” Even their look has barely changed. Though singer Jim James cut his hair recently, most of these scruffy boys from Kentucky haven’t touched their manes.

“We don’t care,” says Hallahan. “We grow our hair long because we like long hair. Nothing’s changed.”