Jim James knows what he's doing. As the driving force behind My Morning Jacket, James has been crafting expansive pop songs since the band's 1999 debut, The Tennessee Fire
. While similar songsmiths change their sound with each new release (see: Spoon's Britt Daniels), James has refined his sensibilities with every album. The result is Z
-- the first My Morning Jacket whose songs reach the heights to which James's voice aspires.
And what a set of lungs he has! As a crooner, James is a more malleable version of Mercury Rev's Jonathan Donahue. His high-pitched voice is a soaring instrument that can travel from a subtle effect to a melodic howl within a single song -- just listen to opener "Wordless Chorus" or "What A Wonderful Man". Younger listeners will hear The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne and older fans always bring up Neil Young -- indeed, My Morning Jacket's last album, 2003's It Still Moves, fits quite nicely next to Young's 1972 Harvest -- but they both miss the point that unlike those singers, James has always relied upon his vocals to carry the band's songs.
Not so on Z. Following a few post-It Still Moves lineup changes -- most notably the replacement of James's cousin Johnny Quaid with Carl Broemel on guitar -- My Morning Jacket rocks and grooves with renewed passion. From the rocksteady "Off The Record" and the quirky pop track "Into The Woods" to the classic guitar freakout that closes "Lay Low", the band not only complements James's voice but extends it, offering a broader context for his often ethereal vocal adventures. Similarly, "It Beats For You"'s laid-back arrangement and closer "Dondante"'s sparse instrumentation are testaments to the band's restraint and ultimate respect for James's singing.
In a pop landscape littered with singers who can't muster decent original material and songwriters unable to fully flesh out their ideas, Z is a breath of fresh air. As James and My Morning Jacket continue to perfect their experimental pop, lesser bands flail uselessly their wake. My Morning Jacket aren't the most experimental or accomplished group around, but they've carved out a niche among listeners who appreciate an ambitious pop record with a healthy respect for classic rock.