August 23, 2008

They Only Look Like Southern Rockers

By Thor Christensen

The guys in My Morning Jacket live in Kentucky, play electric guitars and sport facial hair, all of which can add up to only one thing.

They're Southern rockers, right?

No dice. As the band proves on its fifth CD, "Evil Urges," it's more influenced by R&B and funk than by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

"People assume we're a certain type of band based on how we look," says singer Jim James. "But we all have pretty diverse music collections, and we're always trying something different."

That's an understatement. On "Evil Urges," the band travels from the Philly soul stylings of "Thank You Too!" to the Prince-like synthesizer funk of "Highly Suspicious." Growing up in Louisville in the 1980s, James says, he was awed by the R&B records his parents would play.

Don't let that Southern-rocker look fool you. These guys are heavily influenced by R&B performers, including Dallas' own Erykah Badu.

"You listen to Stevie Wonder's records and there's Beatles production techniques and acoustic guitars, and you listen to Bill Withers, and it's a folk record mixed with a soul record," he says. "Back then, rock and R&B were more mixed than they are now, and we're really inspired by that."

Nowhere is that more evident than at My Morning Jacket's concerts, where the band jumps from its own Who-like guitar anthems to songs by Funkadelic, Sly Stone and Erykah Badu. James says he was first drawn to Badu's 1997 hit "Tyrone" because it gives him the chance to sing his own name ("You gotta bring Jim, James, Paul and Tyrone").

"That's the silly reason we did it. But it's also a fantastic song," he says, adding that if he could sing "Tyrone" live with Badu, it would be "a dream come true."

"Erykah's definitely one of the top ones out there today. She's a great artist who incorporates all sorts of music into her records. It's not all just preprogrammed."

Artists who push boundaries fascinate James. Ask him about his childhood love for "The Muppet Show," and the singer could talk for hours.

"Television is a dangerous medium because it hypnotizes people and totally sucks the creativity out of your brain. But when it's used correctly and thoughtfully, like 'The Muppet Show,' it can be a really powerful thing," he says.

"I sing a lot of songs in different voices, as different characters, and that probably crept in from 'The Muppet Show.' "

But while he often role-plays in his tunes, he also sings about his own life. He wrote the philosophic "Two Halves" about his tendency to "get caught up in the past or the future. It's tough sometimes to be grateful for what you have right now."

In "Librarian," he imagines a love affair from across the bookshelves.

"I'm a shy guy, and I happen to be single at the moment, so if I see somebody I'm attracted to, it'll become a fantasy for me to wonder what it would be like to have a real relationship with them," he says.

A lot of rock bands fantasize about groupies or strippers. Leave it to My Morning Jacket to fantasize about women with degrees in library science.

"Yeah," he says, laughing. "We've really cornered the huge market on librarian lust."

Originally published by McCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS.

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