Z is buoyant, an interstate away from the Jacket’s major-label debut It Still Moves, which sounded as if our shaggy heroes were constructing a silo between themselves and their clingy early fans. As one of those pitiful mouthbreathers, I didn’t like feeling locked out, and so I took the time to cultivate sundry territorial pissings: “There are people who only know their album on that Dave Matthews label and never spent salty nights with The Tennessee Fire or At Dawn? Pshaw! That’s like worshiping The Phantom Menace while never having caught all the Christ references in The Empire Strikes Back! The nerve of these people, these salamandrine new fans! Sucks to their ass-mar!”
But man, Z is buoyant, and those new fans are about to multiply like mogwai at a wet T-shirt contest. The very willfulness with which Jim James averts expectations has come around to forge him into a songwriter whose work might get referred to as “classic” in clone-clogged study halls of the synergized future. With James’ new classicality comes fun rock-crit coinages: When I say that he’s working with an “astronaut Marvin Gaye” vibe, I of course am not referencing the methodical scientists or pilots working at that big gubmint agency in the sky, but the classic-rock astronaut-as-endangered-pioneer-journeyman fantasy, of David Bowie and Elton John pedigrees. Jim James just sounds huge and floating and capable and longing and lost and confident.
And playful. He’s enjoying his voice like a kid who just discovered the joy of rubbery pronunciation. On Z, James coos, shrieks, grunts, squeals, wobbles, and barks — I don’t want to know how premeditated all this was, because it sells as spontaneity. Cleverness abounds as well, reassuring anyone who wondered if the last album’s “One In The Same” was a phonetic typo or an intentional pun. The passionately rendered “Gideon” features a crooning of the line, “Religion should appeal to the hearts of the young,” and its narrative blends the biblical and contemporary in a wonderfully melodramatic way that should cleanse your mind of the Bill Hicks bit about the ninja who smuggle New Testaments into hotel rooms. “Wordless Chorus” is an oddly self-aware title, since the song is neither the first nor the last MMJ song to let a long moan suffice as a refrain…but wait, the phrase is referring to a mute gathering of those moral-burdeneers from Greek theater — a wordless chorus!
Which brings us to “Off The Record”, the most immediately memorizable and ass-grabbing tune by a lauded former indie band on their sophomore corporate production since Modest Mouse’s “Float On”. So it’ll probably be a big single, and be considered somewhat separately from the arc of this album’s sequencing — “off the record,” get it? O, but you’ve underestimated James’ insistence on his albums’ albumness. After a very obvious cutoff point for a radio edit, “Off The Record” spacily meanders on, deep into Pink Floyd circa-the-U.S-bicentennial territory, complete with distorted backward voices. I can’t believe that I so love a song that’s basically a dumbed-down version of the “Hawaii Five-O” riff erupting into some reggae-ska that this band has done better before (consult “Phone Went West”).
Meanwhile, “Anytime”, about a pattern of sustainable postponement that results in a relationship’s communication breakdown, is among the finest and most propulsive Britpop anthems ever penned by a non-royal subject. And just when you’re thinking that, damn, this band used to be southern or something, they drop the titanic rodeo-stomp of “Lay Low” on you, which reminds me — and you, I hope — of a cocksure Conway Twitty lookalike who used to swing on a pole at a retiree bar to which my ex-con mother took me in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. (Wow, this “review” contains a few homoerotic slippages. Have I fallen in love with Jim James? Earlier, when Googling the Gideons, I read that they were “international in makeup,” and I imagined all those fundamentalists as cross-continental drag queens. Sigh, even “Googling the Gideons” sounds a tad gay…)
Regrets? Sure, I’ve got a few. The album’s too short; MMJ has released EPs longer than Z. Also, the loping “Into The Woods” suffers from median-syndrome and bogs the record down; I love to hear James get his oompah-freak on, singing about dead kittens and babies, but until that expansive finale which lazy media have conditioned me to consider “epic,” the song’s close to goofy. One more thing: I miss the eerie specificity of the first two MMJ albums. The listener could pretend to know exactly what James was on about, whereas Z and It Still Moves indulge in a generalness that doesn’t shy from cliche.
Maybe that vague quality is what will launch MMJ out of the holo-basements of its groupies and onto a world stage. I just feel like Jim James is using the techniques of software manufacturers and drug dealers — he came on all accommodating and user-friendly, and then became a detached bully when he knew that we were dependent on him.
That said, I’d drink from this album’s galoshes. (Speaking of drinks, I had to invent one, the “Manuel Noriega,” to enjoy It Still Moves.) James continues to employ reverb more maniacally than a Christian documentarian trying to make God’s microphone scary, and I can continue to fantasize that he is a vengeful reincarnate of one of the illiterate farmboys from whom A.P. Carter borrowed the Family catalogue; only now, the myth must be altered to match James’ ambition. “You had me worried,” he bellows, all too sexily, on the closer “Dondante”, and I think I know how he feels. In a perfect world, MMJ will be headlining stadiums by year’s end. But then again, in a perfect world, stadiums wouldn’t have seats.