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My Morning Jacket: Gymnasium Americana

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My Morning Jacket: Gymnasium Americana

Carl Broemel (left) and his duesenberg Starplayer tV collaborate in the studio with vocalist Jim James and his custom Breedlove Revival 000. Photo by Roderick Norman Trestrail II

Over the last decade, My Morning Jacket has proven itself to be perhaps the contemporary band most adept at absorbing and mixing country, folk, rock ’n’ roll, gospel, funk, and soul. So adept, in fact, that they were invited to open for Neil Young. And their Coachella and Bonnaroo performances over the last few years have been genuinely epic (their 35-song 2008 Bonnaroo set lasted four hours and featured guest appearances by Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and The Hangover’s Zach Galifianakis). Led by singer/guitarist Jim James’ falsetto hollers and smooth crooning, the Louisville, Kentucky, outfit has managed to consistently capture and distil the essence of American musical origins, as evidenced by everything from the raw, lo-fi raggedness of 1999’s The Tennessee Fire to 2008’s sultry, Grammy-nominated Evil Urges. The current lineup—founders James and bassist Tom Blankenship, along with guitarist Carl Broemel, drummer Patrick Hallahan, and keyboardist Bo Koster—has been together since 2005’s Z, which happened to be the album when their heavy Americana leanings really burst forth. Coinciding with that subtle shift was a greater affinity for keys, soaring guitar breaks, and eclectic surprises such as the single “Highly Suspicious”—which had a wah-fueled funk riff like something you’d hear from Prince.

But MMJ’s latest album, Circuital—with its gentle fingerpicked passages, spacious echoes, gorgeous vocal harmonies, and winsome pedal-steel lines—marks something of a return to the band’s roots, And it’s no doubt due at least partially to a three-year break, during which many members of the band explored other musical outlets. James formed the super group Monsters of Folk (with singer-songwriter M. Ward, and Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes) and recorded an EP of George Harrison covers under the name Yim Yames. Meanwhile, Broemel played on various sessions, including rockabilly star Wanda Jackson’s latest album, and Hallahan toured with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach in support of his 2009 solo album Keep It Hid. Whatever the reason, Jacket’s latest outing is more lushly atmospheric and acoustic-driven than their last two efforts—although there are some notable exceptions: “Holdin’ on to Black Metal” has a Thai-soul sound, with funky horn stabs and electric piano grooves, while “You Wanna Freak Out” features a gloriously fuzzed-out, square-tooth-filtered guitar solo.

“I feel like solo acoustic material has always been a part of MMJ,” James says when asked if his stint in Monsters of Folk contributed to the sparser sound of Circuital. “Our records usually feature one or two tunes that are pretty simple. I’ve always liked taking a minute to boil it down and space out.” A prime example of the sort of sound James is referring to is “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)”—a hymn to simple pleasures that finds James indulging in twinkling acoustic arpeggios and intermittent string-section filigrees.


Broemel tracking Circuital with his duesenberg Starplayer TV and a Carr rambler head routed
through a top hat cabinet. Photo by Roderick Norman Trestrail II

Live at the Gymnasium
One of the more interesting—and kudos-deserving—things about Circuital is that the vast majority of tracks were recorded live in a rather sonically unfriendly environment.

“This was such a fun record to make,” says James. “We just set up in a beautiful old gym from the early 1900s and kept the gear real simple—just our tape machine and some nice mics.”

“We discovered we’re innately happier there than in a proper recording studio,” agrees Broemel. “It’s fun to have no reason to look at a ticking clock or have to say ‘Oh, the drums always sound great over here’—to be in a space that doesn’t feel as if it’s been used for what you’re using it for. We got some overdubs done in Brick and Stone Studios in Nashville, and I love it. It’s an amazing studio—so much equipment— but they have pictures of the Beatles everywhere. When you’re trying to record your songs, you don’t want to look at pictures of the Beatles. C’mon, it’s a little intimidating! [Laughs.] In the gym, we were in our own universe, which is the best place for us.”

Pedal-Steel Preparations
Another reason Circuital feels like a return to form for MMJ is because the albums prior to Broemel’s arrival had a lot of pedal- steel playing. But apparently Broemel has spent the last four years training himself on the instrument, because it adds a familiarly soaring, classic-country vibe to “Outta My System,” “Holdin’ on to Black Metal,” “You Wanna Freak Out” and “Movin’ Away.”
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