Jim James could have named every My Morning Jacket record so far Zummagumma but he decided to call the latest one Z, lofting the letter not seen in Latin—”whoreson zed,” according to a random King Lear dis—as semiotic freak flag for screwy bastard causes, including his own. But James chooses his bastards wisely. He’s implied that his decision to like Skynyrd over Squirrel Bait back in his Louisville youth was a rocky row to hoe, but in the world of lived human experience it was smart politics, triangulating post-Slint dub theory and Champagne Jam rock. Z flows reggae, doo-wop, an annoying Dada waltz, a Madonna allusion, and a heap of town dreamer wonderment into their “Tuesday’s Gone” Calgon. I’ve heard this mild adventurousness described as “fearless,” hippies being people we all know quake at things that sound good when you’re smoking pot. At least James has reached beyond gullible Bonnarooskis to pull in cool cats and pop fans via a Murmur-ing invitation to his new South.
The gooey friendliness of his sound notwithstanding, James isn’t wrong to assume alienation is the secret of his band’s obvious power to transport. It’s deeper than linking mid-’90s sound drift to mid-’00s whither-America to chesty classic-rock pride. Unlike the Drive-By Truckers or Bubba Sparxxx, James doesn’t care enough about the roots he’s tugging at to dig for an organic identity; one day in 1993 someone at a Rodan show yelled, “Play ‘Free Bird,’ ” Jim nodded, and 10 years later he’s a mid-level rock star. His secret is that he wouldn’t know Lester Maddox from Let’s Active. His ramble-tamble spaciness, amplified by his cotton-brained machine shed production, creates a sense of bemused distance from his own past, kind of like Cornershop’s When I Was Born for the 7th Time or Endtroducing . . . DJ Shadow or—a more site-specific reference—the lived-in flakiness of Lambchop’s Nixon. Problem is, Z can be kind of a drag.
James claims he made Z while taking hallucinogens and listening to Sam Cooke. This is exactly the kind of line rock guys toss off during the third phoner of the day while cleaning their shotguns or combing their teddy bears. But on the spacey-wobbly opener, “Wordless Chorus,” his voice morphs not unlysergically into an exurban-rural gay-straight dream bleed of raceless placeless possibility, augmented by simulated airplane takeoff noises (whoooooosh) for those less adept in the discernment of sonic metaphor. It’s James’s Dean Wareham–does–Neil Young soul singing that evokes for fans, though often he thinks too much and sorta fucks it up, because his cultural and class experience forces him to shoulder the vicissitudes of Meaning. An anti-Bush Christian (cf. “Gideon”) is a guy I should have more fun getting behind in 2005. But James takes me only halfway to heaven. Attracted by the idea of a band whose favorite Neil Young record is King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown, I saw MMJ a few years ago in a trucker hat moment that was the wrong look for them, got mildly lifted, and went home humming “Powderfinger” just as they probably did, though their ride was further.
On Z, they have trouble following their sound into the weirdness it craves. “What a Wonderful Man” would be a pleasantly loopy me-and-Jesus song if the chorus didn’t sound like ELP’s “Lucky Man.” The equally rocking “Off the Record,” which invokes happy things like open cars and penny arcades against a nice sun-splashed up-riff, worries that “all of this could turn to mist” instead of just admitting that mist is what he lives on. “Anytime” is an excellent Black Crowes tune about music overcoming the ineffability of spoken language. But it’s on the padded pain chamber expanse of “Knot Comes Loose,” where all the daisy haze, religion, and brotherly cluelessness merge into something simpering toward grace. The conga playing is almost as good as Russ Kunkel’s on Zuma.