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ALABAMA SHAKES AND MY MORNING JACKET: ACROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE
5/24/15

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
by Bud Scoppa

When I arrived at a resort outside Playa del Carmen for a week of R&R, the last thing on my mind was listening to music, which I associated with work. Instead, I’d devote the break to reading and ocean swimming. Nonetheless, I’d been intrigued by Alabama ShakesSound & Color when I’d played it from top to bottom on a Saturday night at home. So when I jumped on an elliptical trainer in the resort’s fitness club, I selected Sound & Color to accompany the workout, opened the June issue of Uncut to John Mulvey’s in-depth profile of the Shakes on their home turf, and for the next 47 minutes I was transported.

When the last notes of "Over My Head" faded, I went straight to My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall—and it turns out that playing the two records back to back italicizes the parallels between them, which go far deeper than the fact that both bands are signed to ATO. Particularly striking are a shared soulful mysticism and the ability to seamlessly combine deeply rooted formal precision and ecstatic sonic exploration. The cumulative effect is like being transported to a revival meeting aboard a spacecraft (brought home specifically by the video for Sound & Color’s title track, an overt homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and generally by the blissed-out look in Jim James' eyes).

The next morning I doubled down on the back-to-the-future vibe, shuffling among Sound & Color, The Waterfall and JD McPherson’s sophomore album Let the Good Times Roll (Rounder), a turbocharged roadster that burns rubber through 60 years of left-of-center music, from Little Richard to Wu Tang Clan, as the Oklahoma native (pictured at left) puts his mojo into overdrive. As with 2014’s most captivating album, The War on DrugsLost in the Dream, and the North Mississippi Allstars’ 2013 vintage/modern roots music collage World Boogie Is Coming, these three LPs draw on the past voraciously and transparently; it’s how they use their source material as a springboard for personal expression that makes them so cool and exciting.

Both the Shakes and MMJ make music rooted it—but not limited by—the indigenous sounds of their native South. The ghosts of Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield haunt the Shakes’ astoundingly provocative and self-assured second album, a quantum leap over the band’s likable but safe and song-shy 2012 debut, Boys & Girls. By contrast to its predecessor, Sound & Color’s songs fly off in all directions, but what holds them together is the trust the four musicians and co-producer Blake Mills have in their impulses—as well as the shared belief that those impulses will take them to interesting places. And that they do, without fail, as Brittany Howard goes deep and her cohorts stay right alongside her, framing and containing her excursions with crisp, delectably sultry riffs and grooves.

MMJ’s latest, the Louisville band’s seventh studio effort, meets expectations as consistently as the Shakes’ album defies them. Jim James’ heady aesthetic encompasses Led Zeppelin (“Tropics [Erase Traces]”), the Beach Boys (“Like a River,”) Todd Rundgren/Utopia (“Compound Fracture,” “In Its Infancy [The Waterfall]”) and Philly soul (“A Thin Line,” “Only Memories Remain”) as well as the Allman Brothers Band (“Big Decisions”). These evocations bleed into each other throughout, as James’ bandmates bring heft to his flights, the earth to his air.

As with other contemporary LPs whose sounds draw on the past, the Shakes’ new one inevitably promotes lively games of Spot the Reference. Columbia’s Mark Williams noted in an email, “Shakes is incredible. They made a Led Zeppelin record.” Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal compared Sound & Color to Houses of the Holy. To Grantland’s Steven Hyden, “Gemini” sounds like Erykah Badu covering Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter,” while I hear echoes of vintage Prince and recent D’Angelo against a narcotic slow groove straight out of Sly’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (a record Howard told Mulvey she’d never heard). As for all the Zeppelin analogies, they strike me as more overt in the soft/loud folk-rock intricacies of The Waterfall, whereas they apply to the spirit of Sound & Color—its ambition and audacity—more than its sound, apart from the guitar pyrotechnics of Howard and Heath Fogg.

As Sound & Color proceeds, you’ll pick up distinct echoes of the Stones circa Some Girls in the ambling midtempo groove of “Shoegaze,” Curtis and the Impressions in the coyly titled falsetto confection “Guess Who,” Otis in the smoldering slow-groove R&B of “Miss You,” the Staple Singers in the subtle testifying of “This Feeling” and full-on New Yawk punk rock in the playful abandon of “The Greatest,” while “Dunes,” the title track and “Gimme All Your Love” seem at once tantalizingly familiar and alien, deftly eluding easy comparisons.

The Shakes’ secret weapon is Mills (pictured at right), a brilliant guitarist and songwriter who’s shown himself in his own work as well as in collaborations with Fiona Apple and Conor Oberst to have an extraordinarily nuanced command of organization and execution. Mills has the ability not just to recognize an inspired performance but to articulate what makes it rarefied, and I expect that insightfulness was a crucial part of the song-polishing and recording processes that made this instant classic possible. This onetime Malibu skate kid, who’s just 29, speaks as eloquently as he plays, as he shows throughout Mulvey’s piece and in my Uncut interview with him earlier this year. Those who are blown away by Sound & Color will be fascinated by Mills’ own Heigh Ho, a sublimely understated album that came out last fall on Verve to little notice. 

Like Sound & Color and The Waterfall, Mills’ LP peers backward while leaning forward in a series of charged moments that stand outside of time. Grab these three LPs, add McPherson’ to the playlist and shuffle away.