Something about My Morning Jacket’s Circuital, perhaps its total lack of innovation and generally unchallenging nature, invites derision. I found the experience of listening to this middle-of-the-road album to be acutely disappointing. I wanted to like it. I have enjoyed scattered tracks by this country-tinged, classic-rock styled band over the years, ever since I first heard them as a promising, if out-of-place band on an early Darla Records compilation (Darla being a label better known for indie space-pop) sometime in the late 1990s. But before assessing shortcomings, there are positive aspects. I like the tasty and sometimes moody pedal steel and electric guitar leads on this album. Moreover, Jim James has a strong, appealing voice.
Diving in, however, Circuital stumbles out of the gate with a plodding, soporific dirge, “Victory Dance,” which begins with a ludicrous bugle-like riff that sounds like it is played on a kazoo. Frankly, if this song were submitted to a record label by an unknown band, even in this polished state, it would likely be rejected. The title track, a comfortable, rootsy folk song, while not entirely enthralling, is more upbeat and builds to an understated guitar solo before dropping down again. The muted guitar riff at the beginning and end recalls Bruce Springsteen’s 1980s hit “I’m On Fire.” Unfortunately, or better comically, on “Circuital” it sounds as though James is earnestly singing, “suck iiiiiiit.” This track, perhaps the best here, would have almost made it onto a Fleet Foxes album. Almost. No doubt, Fleet Foxes were clearly influenced by My Morning Jacket, but that group has, based on a comparison of this album and Fleet Foxes’ recently released Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop), neatly eclipsed their forebears.
“The Day is Coming” is a decent rock song, but fails to develop. Released as a single, “Holdin’ on to Black Metal” has its charms, including its punchy horn hits, but is basically akin to a big, slick, late-Santana pop song like “Smooth.” Its background vocals sound as though young female fans were handpicked to sing with their favorite band. It turns out that the standout horn figures and semi-funky guitar riff are not even original to the band, but were taken from an Asian 1960s group. Ultimately, it is quite catchy, if slightly cheesy. “Black Metal,” similar to numerous other songs here, sounds like a conscious stab at radio airplay.
Repeating its title ad nauseum, “Wonderful” is a fuzzy-headed dream of a Utopia in which the singer yearns for a place with “no beliefs” and “no disease,” just “spirits at ease.” When you think about it, death provides such an easing of care and tension, but without a guarantee of “sprits” outlasting the body. Or shooting up heroin, but what’s the point? The Beatles could pull off such a theme, but in the context of a children’s song such as “Octopus’s Garden” or “Yellow Submarine” or as a sparse and radical statement like John’s solo track “Imagine.” Recalling a John Denver outtake, “Wonderful” is flatly embarrassing — in listening to this tripe, one feels as though IQ points are being lost as the seconds tick past. Speaking of The Beatles and their solo careers, this album is in tone particularly reminiscent of non-top-tier solo work by Paul McCartney from the 1970s through the mid-1990s, which is overtly commercial, built on conventional melodies and harmonies, and mostly declines to take risks. Like Paul but less so, the men of My Morning Jacket are obviously talented but they have chosen to tread water or eschew experiment in order to render their music most palatable to a mass audience.
“Outta My System” is mildly redemptive, with lyrics bordering on clever, but on the whole harmonically banal and overly familiar. Still, it definitely merits a listen. “First Light,” however, is bunk: repetitive, mundane, and tiresome. It would have already sounded stale in 1970. “You Wanna Freak Out” is a simple, unremarkable song in 6/8 time, even if it does rock a little.
Although lackluster, Circuital will serve its purpose of building a larger audience and providing new material for the band’s sun-baked festival crowds. In this way, the record resembles a couple of 1970s studio albums by The Grateful Dead, another act esteemed as a live band that didn’t always come across to their best advantage on disc.Visit: My Morning Jacket | ATO
Purchase: Insound | eMusic