Anyone who knows me well, probably knows that I am a huge fan of My Morning Jacket. Jim James, the band's near-lion-maned front-man, has finally decided to put forth an official solo release. Regions Of Light And Sound Of God will be released tomorrow, Tuesday, February 5th, 2013.
**I feel bad for James and anyone else releasing an album around this time since the recent weekend's surprise release of a long-waited My Bloody Valentine follow up will dwarf most others**
I'm not overly surprised by this move as James has played the occasional solo show in recent years and has been featured in various side projects including Monsters of Folk. His influences stem from a broad range of musical genres, some of which many fans and critics alike have seemed to dislike when they rear their influential heads. For example, on 2008's Evil Urges when they dabbled into their R&B roots on songs like Highly Suspicious where James channels Prince and introduces us all to "peanut butter puddin' surprise." Say what you will but this song is insanely killer live and can easily get stuck in your head for days.
The R&B influence has been around the band as long as they have. See the cover of Erykah Badu's "Tyrone" on the Early Recordings Series Chapter 2: The Learning. During live shows they're known to drop ridiculously good covers of Kool & the Gang, Sam Cooke, Gil Scott-Heron, James Brown and many others.
In doing a solo album, James is able to channel any influence he's feeling at the moment and go in any direction. This can all be done without having much effect on the overall view of My Morning Jacket. Also, guards him against much push back they may typically receive from their label and/or producers.
It has been reported numerous times already across interviews and blogs but Regions is largely inspired by a 1929 graphic novel called God's Man by Lynd Ward. This isn't exactly the sort of graphic novel most of us are familiar with today. Ward told his story through a series of woodcarvings, and in doing so was able to portray his message across any foreseeable language barrier. It tells the story of Ward's own struggles with his life, his art, and the temptations of the time. I honestly had never heard of this story before but call me intrigued! Ward wrote (carved?) a few other books as well and will be interested to see if there is a spike in their sales around the release of Regions.
In Regions Of Light And Sound Of God, James has taken Ward's concept and applied it to a different sense. We can't feel nor see the stories, but we definitely can hear them. James not only wrote and sang the songs but played all of the instruments as well. After one full listen through, and honestly without paying very close attention to the lyrics, there was this feeling as if I was just told an emotional story. It hit me almost instantly in a wave as soon as the music stopped. While digesting this unexpected notion, I immediately hit play again.
When I first read that the album was based on Ward's novel, I took it as being inspired by the story not necessarily by the process behind it. This may still be the case but whether or not James meant to do so, it feels like the emotions he's reaching out to convey are being carved out in front of me as I listen.
Whatever message intended, Regions does a solid job of tackling and intertwining the diverse genres James regards. Opener "State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.)" shows James in his most crooner-esque state. I imagine him singing in a smoky basement lounge with a glass of scotch sweating onto the napkin that acts as the sole barrier between it and the wood of the piano he's playing. A dim light shines across his mane as the backup band begins to softly join the in. Don't get me wrong, there's no mistaking this from the Jim James of My Morning Jacket. It's not a far-off departure, but more a sign of where we're headed....familiar territory we haven't seen before.
"I Didn't Know Til Now" is one of the first songs we were afforded the opportunity hear prior to the release. There's a 70's disco-pop aura around the song but maybe not in the way you might expect. It has a standout ballad or b-side from the era feel to it. Mellow enough but still keeps the toes tapping.
"A New Life" sounds like it could be an outtake from a number of MMJ album sessions. It starts off very low-key with an emphasis on James' voice and mild strings. The tempo picks up a little but the focus never truly deviates. The horns are an exceptional compliment to the song, though.
"Actress" is one of my favorites through the first few listens. Like much of the album it really deviates itself from the other songs while still maintaining its place with the album. There's an early string influence that gets taken over by more of a suffering rocker tone. There is rock opera vibe where you can imagine a lead character singing this to himself in his room on stage talking about his love interest. What are you trying to tell us Jim! Where is this all going??
Ok, I'm not going to critique and review every song on the album but wanted to touch on a few that showcase the varied sides to Regions. It seems almost as if James took it upon himself to bridge the former My Morning Jacket albums, their influences, and where they may be headed into a little more than a half hour.
Check out "A New Life" below.