Given MMJ’s Americana emphasis, one would correctly surmise that James and Broemel don’t use a lot of strange effects— though both have a wide selection of echo, reverb, and overdrive pedals. Indeed, Jacket seems to exist in a cloud of reverb, so the two guitarists’ attention in this area is no real surprise. But what might be surprising is the lack of full-on vintage love and the embrace of many new boutique stompboxes, including models from SIB, Z.Vex, EarthQuaker Devices, Malekko, Durham Electronics, and Boss.
James Howling as he grips his 1999 gibson flying V. Photo by Linda Park
That said, Broemel is pretty adamant about the necessity of one vintage-styled piece of signal-altering gear. “I’ve got one of those Tube Tape Echos,” he says of the treasured Fulltone unit he used on pretty much every Circuital song. “That thing is unbelievable. That and great amps are all you need in the studio. I try not to use too much, though—only what I need.”
Finding a Balance
Another reason why Circuital sounds a little more reigned-in than some of MMJ’s recent albums is the more supportive role that the guitars play. Whereas past MMJ tunes like “Gideon,” “It Beats 4 U,” and “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt. 1” had more central guitar refrains, this set is very much about delectable songs that create an irresistible mood.
“I feel the guitar is far more effective on record when it’s used sparingly,” James says, “but live it translates very well and provides a lot of excitement. So, I try to find balance between those two worlds.”
Here Broemel cuts in to add some context. “We approach all the instruments equally. As much as we try to experiment and try to use keyboards or saxophones or something to pull the weight of the midrange where the guitar would typically go, a lot of times we’d end up saying ‘Y’know, the guitar is the best thing there.’”
James on the prowl with a Normandy Guitars Archtop plugged into Carr rambler (left) and
Mesa/Boogie Tremoverb heads, each powering a Boogie 2x12, at a 2008 New Year’s eve
gig at Madison Square Gardens. Photo by Jackie Roman
As an example of the type of egalitarian musicianship that’s more prevalent on Circuital, one need look no further than the build-up of the opening track, “Victory Dance”: A gong and a heraldic electric-piano refrain lead into spoken-word vocals that slowly build to a crescendo of strings and sparse, slapback-tinged electrics that snap here and there before tremolo-goaded chords warble and swell into out-of-control feedback and the whole song gets sucked into a frenetic vortex of sound. But Broemel feels the title track has the album’s finest guitar spot: Clean, palm-muted electric arpeggios and James’ lilting voice set a lovely, optimistic mood before the choruses lift you a little higher with John Mellencamp-like acoustic splashes and bristling power-chord stabs, and then, more than five minutes into the seven-plus-minute song, Broemel and Hallahan ratchet up the pulse with crashing snare and cymbals, a bunch of Bigsby wobbling, soaring melodies, and a series of joyous descending double-stops—all with impeccable tone that speaks volumes with a delectable minimalism.