State Pen

If I didn't know any better--and I don't, actually--I'd swear Jim James is higher than Rush Limbaugh on an OxyContin binge right now. More than likely the singer-guitarist for My Morning Jacket is not, but the conversation we've been having is enough probable cause for a search warrant. That is, if years of watching Law & Order reruns have taught us anything other than the fact that the most high-profile guest star is the killer.

For example: "I really wish there was a way for us to exist as specters or something that you couldn't see but we could still come to your town and you would just see guitars floating onstage. You know, like keyboard keys being pressed and drumsticks flying through the air." This is James' initial response when asked if he ever wished he and his band didn't hail from Kentucky, a geographical quirk that has prompted dozens of Southern-rock comparisons that are more ill-fitting than anything in Anna Nicole Smith's closet.

And also: "I feel like I don't really think about time in a normal way, 'cause I don't really feel like I'm part of what's going on right now in the world. I don't feel connected to the world in any way, and I don't really feel like this is my time. But then again, I don't really feel like I should have been born in the '60s or anything like that. I really don't feel connected to the earth in many ways at all." Not really sure what provoked this, but I think it had something to do with the timeless nature of My Morning Jacket's three albums, especially its latest, It Still Moves, the band's third album and first for Dave Matthews' ATO Records.

If either of those answers had come from someone else, they'd be tough to stomach, much less swallow. Had they come from, say, Ryan Adams, it could be easily dismissed as just more pompous pondering from a pint-sized pinhead. But when James says it, it somehow makes sense.

His wish to be invisible onstage, for instance, isn't a bit of reverse psychology, a way to get people to protest, "No, Jim, we really want to see you up there." James isn't baiting a hook. He knows no one really needs to see him playing his songs, what his eyes do when he hits a high note, how his mouth screws up when he's in the middle of a solo. For him, the music comes above all, and the people who make it are more of a distraction than anything else.

So he becomes a kind of ghost onstage. You'll rarely see James' face in concert, even though he's front and center at all times. He'll hide behind a stuffed animal straddling the microphone (yeah, it's a bit difficult to explain that one) or let his long curly hair hang like a veil in front of him. Whatever it takes to direct the spotlight elsewhere.

Which isn't to say James doesn't enjoy performing live, that he is some shell-shocked studio genius who prefers playing in his sandbox with his pet sounds. If he were, It Still Moves wouldn't, well, move quite the way it does. The disc showcases the sound that has made My Morning Jacket one of the most thrilling live acts around over the past two years, a sweaty beast barely contained by the four walls in whatever room it happens to be in. Well, for the most part.

As on their previous two efforts, 1999's The Tennessee Fire and 2001's At Dawn, James' vocals are drenched in reverb until the sound that emerges is three echoes removed from reality. And the songs are occasionally lazy and hazy--the Kentucky-fried Velvet Underground label has a few washes to go before it wears off completely. This time, however, that side of the band goes toe to toe with one previously unseen on record: the side that leaves Marshall stacks smoking, bangs its collective head like a pre-Black Album-era Metallica and piles on more solos than a half-off sale at Guitar Center.

"Shows and live performance have become such a bigger part of our life than they were when we made the other two records," James says. At the moment, he and the band--guitarist Johnny Quaid, bassist Two Tone Tommy, keyboard player Danny Cash and drummer Patrick Hallahan--are in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on their way to a show in Detroit. "We definitely wanted it to reflect more on how we are live, and I think we're way better live now than we were in the beginning, because we've got the drummer that we need now, and we're finally tied down in a good lineup now, which is really nice. But we didn't want to make it as pummeling or as completely the same as the live shows, because then you wouldn't really have any reason to..." He trails off.

"You know, we want the live show to be a different experience, and we want the record to be something that's a nice listen. You can put it on and really enjoy listening to it, as opposed to something that's really assaulting your senses."

Except that's not quite true. It Still Moves does, indeed, assault your senses--in a good way. It's an overwhelming record, a dozen songs that refuse to sit in the background while you do the dishes or pay your bills. They demand to be listened to, whether it's the all-hands-on-deck harmonies of opener "Mahgeetah" that answer the unasked question, "What if a sane Brian Wilson produced a record by an insane Crazy Horse?" or the tear-in-my-beer tenderness of closer "One in the Same." You can't skip one. You can't do anything, really, except try to take it all in.

Even if you do, of course, you'll never know exactly what My Morning Jacket sounds like. Or what it's supposed to sound like, because the true sound exists only in James' head. Delivering that sound is James' admittedly unattainable goal, and while he comes close enough to make him happy, it's also far enough away to make him keep trying.

"I don't think I can ever reach the ultimate grandeur of heaven that I have in my head and the place that I'd like to go and the way I'd like to hear things. I think that's impossible, because that technology doesn't exist."

Sadly, the technology also doesn't exist for James and his band to be specters onstage. And scientists have yet to come up with a way to make people forget about Lynyrd Skynyrd, but feel free to keep your fingers crossed. So the members of My Morning Jacket will have to endure continued attempts to link their present with Southern rock's past and writers spending more time talking about their hair than their music. (Only Cash seems to have seen the business end of a barber's shears in the past few years.) Maybe one day, it'll all come together and James can make the record he truly wants to and not have people bring up the Allman Brothers when he does. Until then, memorize this:

"It's like, yeah, we're proud to be from Kentucky, and we're proud to be who we are and have led the lives we lead. And, you know, there are some aspects about Southern rock that are great, and there are some that really suck. I think the minute you mention the words 'Southern rock' or 'Lynyrd Skynyrd,' in people's minds it's instantly bastardized. People instantly think that, you know, we're long-haired fucking lazy dudes who just wanna get drunk or just wanna go get rowdy and tear down the bar, and that's fucking frustrating, man. Because it's like, we fucking pour our balls and our heart and our soul into everything we do, and we're out here on the road every fucking day of the year almost. And I feel like we're really trying to do something different with music, and we're really trying to make something nice for people to listen to. To have it instantly bastardized as Southern rock or to have people just write about our hair, it's fucking stupid, you know?"

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain