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Jim James - Uniform Distortion Music Album Reviews

Information overload and its discontents inspire a guitar-heavy solo album that sounds more like a classic My Morning Jacket record than anything James’ band has released in the past 15 years.

Roots music is, by definition, tethered to the land. It’s a naturalistic sound born of dust and dirt, and it’s a style that a young Jim James fully embodied when he emerged in 1999 as the frontman of Kentucky heartbreakers My Morning Jacket. But in the two decades since then, James’ approach to roots music has become less about preserving certain sepia-toned agrarian aesthetics and more about emulating what actual plant roots do with patient nurturing: They blossom into splendorous flora, sprouting toward the sky in unpredictable shapes and directions. As a result, the restlessly ambitious My Morning Jacket and James’ own increasingly prolific solo career have both flourished, yielding a dense thicket of work that becomes ever more difficult to disentangle as both acts continue to branch out.

But on his third solo album of original material, James prunes away the excess foliage. Pulling an abrupt 180 from the cinematic future-soul of his previous release, 2016’s Eternally Even, he conceived Uniform Distortion as a quick-and-dirty affair. The album finds James fronting a power trio, supported by old pals Seth Kauffman on bass and Dave Givan on drums, and capturing the action with all the corroded fidelity of a cassette bootleg of a live radio session. (The only embellishment comes in the form of alternately soothing and sassy backing vocals from L.A. harmony-folk trio Dear Lemon Trees.) After several years of studio-sculpted experimentation both within and without his main band, James has reclaimed the electric guitar like a lost superpower, making Uniform Distortion closer in spirit to a quintessential My Morning Jacket record than anything that band has actually released in the past 15 years. This is great news for anyone who, back in 2003, was hoping James’ band would become a 21st-century .38 Special, not an American Radiohead.

Uniform Distortion isn’t a simple back-to-basics move, however. Like any sentient being with a smartphone in 2018, James has been feeling overwhelmed by the daily avalanche of information at our thumb-tips, and the coarsening discourse that surrounds it. As he revealed on the podcast “Celebration Rock,” he even went off the grid for a week-long silent retreat in the Northern California woods to clear his head. The album’s front cover, a photo taken from ’70s eco-bible The Last Whole Earth Catalog, presents a this-is-your-brain-on-internet diagnosis—but the music within has a decidedly different tone from the grave, politicized prophecies of Eternally Even. Instead, James embraces simplicity and levity.

While the new album’s deliberately muddy mix foregrounds his squealing leads—taking them to beard-scorching extremes—the most telling sound that pervades this record is laughter. There is James, nearly flubbing the second chorus of the boisterous roadhouse rocker “You Get to Rome” due to a giggling fit, and launching into the Replacements-like chugger “Yes to Everything” with a throaty chortle. When he’s not audibly cracking up, he exploits his full vocal range to comic effect: “Too Be Good to Be True” may be modeled after a ’50s breakup ballad, but it’s hard not to smile when James drops into a bassy, Bowser-worthy serenade.

At times, irreverence can get the best of him: “Out of Time” doesn’t survive its impulsive transition from breezy freeway cruiser to sludgy stoner-metal jam, while the bluesy grind “No Use Waiting” is saddled with a goofy, Zappa-esque spoken-word hook. But Uniform Distortion is a deceptively lighthearted affair, as it taps into the doubt and discontent fueling all the carefree kicks. “Just a Fool” may roll in on a flatbed of boogielicious guitar licks, but it’s a drinking song that longs for a world where we don’t need the bottle to make it through the day. And while the melancholic power-pop missive “Over and Over” may not be a cover of the MC5 classic of the same name, it’s very much a spiritual successor, updating the original’s references to Vietnam and factory-worker unrest with allusions to drone strikes and building walls as it swaps out Rob Tyner’s incendiary rage for James’ weary resignation.

Uniform Distortion abounds with displays of James’ fiery fretwork, but he rarely wields his other signature weapon—that angelic croon that trembles with vulnerability yet can soar high enough to rattle satellites. In the fleeting moments when it does surface, the effect is doubly stunning. Atop the mesmerizing Crazy Horse drift of “No Secrets,” James uses that sky-high coo to summon mounting waves of guitar discord, as the song cycles through its lone verse and chorus with ever-increasing intensity. And in the beautifully crestfallen “Throwback,” a knowing title and a wistful lyrical hook—“When we were young”—serve a song that sounds exactly like the sort of stargazing backwoods elegy James would’ve written when he was young.

Since those early days, James has refused to be pigeonholed as the shaggy-haired Southern-rock revivalist many assumed him to be. Uniform Distortion shows he can easily revert to that mode when the mood strikes, but in this case, he’s conjuring the past as a means to take stock of our current condition. When he sings, “Throw back Thursday to the way that it was,” he’s yearning for a less complicated, more enriching way of life that can’t so easily be accessed through an Instagram hashtag. The ache in his voice says it all: This isn’t about nostalgia, it’s a cry for help.

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