by Asher Wolf
Do you like living room music? A low-key, close-up, intimate feel as if the musicians were expressing themselves for your ears alone? If so, My Morning Jacket is not the band for you. They would level your house to the ground.
With cosmic vocals and an ensemble of fuzzy, reverb-laden guitar riffs, the band could make a stadium seem claustrophobic. MMJ plays Americana a la Copland, embodying the majesty of the western expanse with a sound on par with the composer’s open orchestral arrangements. And It Still Moves, their 2003 masterpiece, captures the band at their very biggest. The album was by no means the end or peak of MMJ’s creative development; they have continued to splinter stylistically with each subsequent release, and 2015’s The Waterfall may be the band’s most eccentric moment to date. However, It Still Moves epitomizes one specific aesthetic for which MMJ is renowned, the culmination of an identity they had been honing throughout the two albums prior to its release.
Though the band’s later releases are equally interesting, it is easy to see why It Still Moves has come to be regarded as their iconic work. Despite its stadium-level grandeur the music seems deeply personal, and the album’s convincing fusion of Southern country and folk with jam-band psychedelic rock is distinctive yet natural. It also plays like a ‘greatest hits’ record. The two press releases I received each cited a different handful of tracks as the album’s gems. Perhaps it’s the nostalgia of revisiting an album that bridged my childhood classic-rock obsession with the indie and Americana sensibilities burgeoning on the fringes of my taste, but each of the twelve tracks now strikes me as definitively classic.
Thus, MMJ’s discography has no better candidate for a makeover. On May 27th, ATO Records will grace the world with a re-issue of It Still Moves, personally remixed and remastered by lead singer and songwriter Jim James. The frontman admits to having felt rushed through the original production process, eager to churn out the band’s first release for a major label and lacking the studio-veteran status he has today. Indeed, the production is the only aspect of the record that has aged less than gracefully. Tracks on the original allude to their potential glory without ever fully realizing it, requiring too much imagination on behalf of the listener to render the songs with the oceanic depth and scale with which they deserve to be heard. So while the reissue is certainly the same album fans have known and loved, the improvement is far from trivial. An apt analogy would be the remake of a classic Pokemon game, in which the 8-bit map is fleshed out in crisp three-dimensionality, reaching closer toward the aesthetic ideal and revealing new details in the process.
“Mahgeeta” kicks off the album with a bright, ethereal vocal line before the rhythm section drops, thrusting the song forward. It exemplifies MMJ’s habit of structuring songs like suites, with a sequential evolution from section to section instead of the cyclical repetition of verses and choruses that is the standard song form. They pull it off by making each shift sound inevitable and immensely satisfying. Multiple guitar solos erupt from the riff-based jams of “Mahgeeta” as if the musicians lost the willpower to contain themselves. The next track, “Dancefloors”, is similar, with a catchy hook that gives way to an extended, multi-part jam section. This time a saxophone joins the celebrative fray, sounding like another extra dirty electric guitar.
The album waxes sentimental with the acoustic shuffle of “Golden”, and then climaxes in intensity on “One Big Holiday”, an exhilarating stadium rocker. The song exhibits MMJ’s notable earnestness, an endearing quality that lets them get away such unabashedly epic country-rock numbers without coming off as contrived or heavy-handed. The multiple build-ups within each song would get old if it weren’t so obvious that the band members were genuinely thrilling themselves (and the listener) with each grand swell.
The following track could not present a greater juxtaposition. “I Will Sing You Songs”, clocking in at over nine minutes, sounds like a mid-tempo, normal length ballad played in slow motion. In addition to their propensity for jubilant speed, MMJ can flow like molasses. “I Will Sing You Songs” is a heavy, ruminative centerpiece for the album, dripping with somber beauty. Remarkably very little happens throughout the nine minutes. The band can afford to be subtle and patient in their development of the theme, knowing exactly how long to vamp on a progression before providing a new element to keep it fresh.
It helps that they have apparently mastered the emotion-drenched slow-groove. On “Rollin Back” and “One In The Same” the band is so relaxed that they play behind the beat. Today’s hip attitude for rock, dominated by the indie and alternative aesthetics, seems to be one of jaded, often cynical, removal. In contrast, It Still Moves is such an emotionally direct album that it can come off as melodramatic (though certainly not to a fault). Jim James is an eccentric guy, and he’s not afraid to show it, whether through personal, esoteric lyrics or by harnessing the natural reverb of the grain silo in which he recorded most of the album’s vocals. MMJ’s seems wholly unconcerned with being cool, and this self-assuredness results in genuine and forceful music. “Run Thru” could be considered the album’s heavy hitter, opening with a drawn-out, bluesy guitar riff that rips through the silence and ending with a bass-driven double-time passage. As with many tracks on the album, the song reaches for the ecstatic limits of what rock and roll can make a person feel.
After 13 years, the title of the album has been proven prophetic in multiple respects. It still moves at a forceful, confident pace throughout, and after so many listens it still moves me more than ever. The album is a gem of 21st century American music, and I would highly recommend the reissue to fans and newcomers alike.