Rough Trade, 2008

Never has a record so wrong-footed me like Evil Urges has. Louisville’s My Morning Jacket were always a band with broad influences in their sound. 2005’s Z was the strongest indication that their fret-tapping southern rock roots had run their course. Playing a solo show in London to promote the album, singer James brought out an omnichord, looking like a kid with a brand new toy. My Morning Jacket gone electronic? The reality wasn’t quite so simple, but the results proved to be their best album to date. As experimental as this album was, it has nothing on Evil Urges…

Where Z pulled some new moves and delivered, Evil Urges is an awesomely confounding record. It’s not quite Kiss Unmasked, but Jim James without his cloak of reverb, pushing out a falsetto vocal is an altogether unexpected moment. Even with the reassuring knowledge that this is the new My Morning Jacket album, you could swear this is a weird rock band with a curious Prince fixation as they do on the title track, James explaining these “evil urges” as being “about how all of these things that you’ve been told are evil really aren’t, unless they’re actually hurting something or somebody.” Ah-huh…?

The ardent My Morning Jacket fan will be aware of the extent of James’ influences, where on a previously released collection of demos and early recordings a young James covers the Pet Shop Boy’s ‘West End Girls’, so it’s not a stretch of the imagination for the band to record an electronic track like “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream” with its stuttering syncopated beats, itself sounding like a continuation of Z‘s “It Beats 4 U”, but for them to suddenly want to sound like Cameo on the stupefying electro-funk of “Highly Suspicious” is almost like an attempt to thwart all expectations and thoroughly fuck with the fans heads.

A change of scenery may be to blame, with the band recording the bulk of the album in midtown New York away from the farms and familiarity of Louisville, Kentucky. James expressed a desire to deliberately try to shake things up, and given the almost alien surrounds of New York to that of Kentucky it’s obvious to what effect its had, especially on the first half of the album. The second half though is more familiar My Morning Jacket territory, uncomplicated by keening techno wizardry and in its place is some regular rock and roll and simple balladry. Looked at as such, Evil Urges is an album with two distinct sides that both sit uneasily when balanced next to each other. Quirky funk/R&B vs. Southern country/rock.

“Sec Walkin” oozes Nashville country with its pedal steel guitar. The succinct doo-wop pop of “Two Halves” is layered with some gorgeous harmonies. “Librarian” is appropriately the quietest moment on the album, James alone on guitar, with hearts in his eyes for the local librarian, complete with a sweet chorus that intentional or not, is worth a giggle or two. “Aluminum Park” and “Remnants” are the big head-shaking jam band numbers full of buzzsaw guitars and choppy riffs. If it weren’t for the 8 minute extended mix of “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream” which closes out the album, you’d have almost forgotten about the misjudged falsetto funk of the opening tracks.

Despite all appearances Evil Urges does sound like My Morning Jacket’s most outward attempt to gain wider recognition and distance themselves from the regular Skynyrd Southern Rock pigeon-holing. There’s a maturity with James’ song writing and there’s still that keen sense of rhythm and melody from an incredibly focused band that aren’t content to rewrite the same old songs. If it weren’t for the throwaway “Highly Suspicious” and the feeling that they were trying to push the bar a little too far, Evil Urges could’ve been a contender.