Digging a little deeper

My Morning Jacket performs at PNC Pavilion in support of Circuital

By Alan Sculley

My Morning Jacket performing in July at Somerset House in London.  photo courtesy of CC Baxter.

My Morning Jacket performing in July at Somerset House in London. photo courtesy of CC Baxter.

My Morning Jacket has always had the same goal going into each of its six albums – don’t repeat what the band did on its previous CD.

“You want every record to be a different experience for us and hopefully for the listener as well,” bassist Two-Tone Tommy Blankenship said, succinctly summing up the group’s thinking.

But by the time the band finished recording its new CD, Circuital, it wasn’t just the recording process that had changed; so had the chemistry between the five band members – and for the better.

“It was all about trust,” Blankenship said. “It’s about listening to each other [while recording] and just relying on one another and no one else.“

That the five members of My Morning Jacket – singer/guitarist Jim James, Two-Tone Tommy Blankenship, guitarist Carl Broemel, keyboardist Bo Koster and drummer Patrick Hallahan – feeling closer as a band is good news for fans who may have wondered about their future after the group went on a hiatus in 2009 that extended into 2010.

During that time, James joined forces with Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes) and M. Ward (She & Him) to form Monsters Of Folk, whose 2009 self-titled debut was a critical and commercial hit. Broemel, meanwhile, made a solo CD while Hallahan and Blankenship stayed busy with some session work and producing.

Blankenship said taking the time away from My Morning Jacket was a healthy move.

“I think forcing ourselves to take that time just for us individually to do the things we needed to do [was beneficial],” he said. “It really does take some time to be at home and decompress and really reflect back on what’s been going on.”

Then, when the band reconvened in 2010, the very different ways group members approached the making of Circuital – especially compared to the previous My Morning Jacket CD, 2008’s Evil Urges – further helped to foster a collaborative spirit and bring them closer together as musicians and friends.

Evil Urges, recorded at Avatar Studios in New York City, was the Louisville-based group’s most meticulous and studio-polished effort.

Blankenship remembers the Avatar sessions as anything but relaxed.

“We were working 12-hour days there and there was a lot of pressure, too, because you’re paying for these 12-hour blocks (of studio time) and you want to take advantage of every moment that you have,” he said. “I think in a way, it was an intentional journey that we took to spend that much time on the tones, on the individual parts. It was to really analyze everything, get microscopic with every element of the record.”

Different meant returning to the group’s home town of Louisville to make a CD there for the first time since the group’s 2003 CD, It Still Moves.

Location wasn’t the only way My Morning Jacket changed up the recording process. The group brought in a new producer, Tucker Martine, and rather than using a conventional studio, the band recorded in a church gymnasium in Louisville.

In addition, instead of recording songs track by track, the band recorded live in the gym, capturing the performances as they happened.

Songwriter James also sought to create more of a collaborative atmosphere by bringing in song ideas at a more unfinished stage, which left the other band members more room to bring their ideas to the new songs.

“I think that, too, [figured] into the kind of freshness we had with the performances,” Blankenship said. “I think there was a lot of freedom there to [create], individual freedom, I would say, compared to the last [couple] of albums before.”

What’s ironic is that for all the changes in My Morning Jacket’s recording approach, Circuital sounds reassuringly familiar. In fact, it most closely recalls the atmospheric, jam feel of It Still Moves, the band’s third CD, after two CDs, Z and Evil Urges that emphasized more concise and hooky songcraft.

Circuital, though, returns to more of a free-form place, as My Morning Jacket easily moves between rock, folk, psychedelic and Southern Gothic. There are a couple of concise pop-rock songs (“Out Of My System” and “You Wanna Freak Out”). But many of the songs have an epic feel and frequently find a deep groove full of melody and thick atmosphere.

Many songs on Circuital also sound open-ended enough to evolve and expand on stage. Blankenship said he suspects the new songs will change, but the group isn’t pushing the issue.

“There were some even when we were recording, we thought like, ‘Wow, think how this is going to be when we start playing it live.’” Blankenship said. “We recognize that songs always have a life after they’ve been recorded … but to have any, like, specific plans for these songs themselves, we’re just open to the possibility that any of them can change from night to night.”

My Morning Jacket will perform Wednesday, August 17 at PNC Pavilion in Cincinnati with Neko Case. Tickets are $50 and $60. For more info, visit www.mymorningjacket.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Alan Sculley at ContactUs@DaytonCityPaper.com.

Alan Sculley
Reach DCP freelance writer Alan Sculley at AlanSculley@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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