Considering the band has been around since the late '90s, and during that time managed to chart exactly one song on Billboard's U.S. rock chart, it’s an impressive feat that My Morning Jacket continues to sell out large venues and headline major festivals. If anything, enigmatic frontman Jim James and his bandmates have proven that lack of radio play doesn’t necessarily beget commercial failure.
Or maybe MMJ is simply the new Phish, a band that never really resonated commercially but whose live shows are among those of legend. The quintet, which plays Revention Music Center tomorrow night, is known for its jam-band ways, often rolling one ten-minute song into another. Their catalog is among the most unique in rock over the past 15 years. It features some tracks that scream for mainstream acceptance, some that couldn’t care less and others that are, to put it mildly, bizarre as hell.
“One Big Holiday”
The best song the band ever produced, “One Big Holiday” is My Morning Jacket at its finest. James wails with a voice that could fit into any church choir, and a guitar/drum instrumental brings the song home. If it feels like the band put a little extra into this one, they did — “One Big Holiday” is about MMJ being discovered and catching its big break.
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The closest MMJ ever came to any semblance of mainstream radio success, “I’m Amazed” peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard's U.S. Adult Singles chart upon its release in 2008. The band even performed it on Saturday Night Live. Yes, even in 2008, SNL still made it a mission to showcase bands half its viewers had likely never heard of.
One of the most beautiful songs about stalking ever recorded, “Librarian” is an ode to an era gone by — “Ramble up the stairwell into the hall of books/ Since we got the interweb, these hardly get used.” It’s also a creepy tale of James’s obsession with “the sexiest librarian” he had ever seen, one whom the front man imagines dining and romancing.
“Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Part 2”
Now we’re entering jam-band territory, eight-plus minutes of James and MMJ at peak form. In this tribute to love and those who inspire it, James delivers lyrics like, “I can see it/ By the way you smile/ I'm smilin' too/ I see myself in you.” James is a rarity – a musician who seems to write better songs about falling in love, rather than out of it.
“Outta My System”
Circuital, released in 2011, was billed as a return to experimental form for My Morning Jacket. In reality, it was kind of a dud of a studio record. That said, it did give us “Outta My System,” among the weirder, more charming songs the band ever put out. The lyrics are straightforward and not particularly deep – “They told me not to smoke drugs, but I wouldn’t listen/ Never thought I’d get caught and wind up in prison” – but the track shines as a testament to lost youth and a penchant for troublemaking tactics, even at an older age.
From the band’s most recent album, Waterfall, this track is trademark MMJ. It balances religious undertones — a staple of James’s songwriting — when it classifies God and the Devil as “made up.” It also encourages listeners to live life to the fullest and enjoy the moment, via lyrics like, “Get as much as you can keep around/ Before they put you into the ground.”
“Off the Record”
The fact that this track never charted in the U.S. is a testament to why mainstream FM radio is dying (though it did chart at No. 114 on the UK radio charts). The track is just weird enough to be considered “unique” for mainstream audiences, but possesses a catchy enough hook to intrigue casual listeners. Plus, it’s only three minutes long. The commercial rejection of “Off the Record” and “I’m Amazed” is likely why MMJ said to hell with it and returned to experimental form.
The best Prince song neither written nor performed by Prince, “Highly Suspicious" is MMJ doing what it does best – bucking convention. It features James in full-on high-pitched mode, an awesome chorus and the repeated use of “peanut butter pudding surprise.” Simply put, this song doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it’s too awesome for that to matter.
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There’s nothing particularly unique or otherworldly about “Golden,” from 2003’s underrated It Still Moves, in which MMJ tasted its first drop of success. It’s just a great song. A beautiful, harmonious chorus, coupled with a steady acoustic guitar strumming in the background, this track would have been a hit had it been released a few years later, when indie music became more commercially accessible.
We end at the beginning, the highlight of MMJ’s debut – 1999’s The Tennessee Fire. The single is a little rough but features a conventional sound, as if it's a band looking to get noticed; but in it also lies what would become MMJ’s trademark experimental sound. The band was onto something special at this time, even if they (or audiences) hadn’t quite figured it out yet.