Tuesday, September 30, 2008

9/30/08 - My Morning Jacket and the DNA of Lynyrd Skynyrd

I saw My Morning Jacket at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley; after said experience I will recommend it to anyone. They put on a titanically powerful show, dropping all of the reverb from their recorded output and pushing the rock throttle into the red. Of note and impressive was the facility MMJ displayed in moving from longer, moodier, almost Pink Floyd-ish songs to bashing rockers steeped in a hefty amount of Replacements-isms. Floyd, actually, is what I kept coming back to as a touch point, especially when the light show started playing through the Bay Area fog in earnest as Jim James unleashed his howling tenor. Usually, I'm a lyrics person, but I have to admit that with the exception of "Golden" and "Mahgeetah", I usually don't have the faintest idea as to what James is singing -partially because of the reverb-soak, but partially because he deploys his voice instrumentally- all high lonesome vowels with very little enunciation.

There was also a whole lot of righteous guitar soloing, which I support without reservation. As I've written before, the guitar solo seems to be a lost art these days, but MMJ pulled out some serious guitar duels throughout the night. Unlike the kind of white noise production that passes for instrumental passages for many rock bands these days, these solos were clear and piercing, and mostly melodic and forward moving.

Which got me thinking about Lynryd Skynyrd, since the guitar stomps tended to sound Skynred-esque, instead of Floyd-esque; they were swampy instead of spacey. I realized, though, that, much as Floyd has, Skynyrd has become a very specific aural touch point for bands in way that speaks to true cultural penetration. Not only are the sonic qualities of Skynyrd and Floyd instantly identifiable in the manner of most unique and potent bands, but they stand on for an entire aesthetic conception of music, a rarified height for a band to achieve. Even the most influential and respected bands do not always stand in as the ur-band of their genre; and even when a band is "first" to break through in that musical style they are not always blessed with ur-band status.

Skynyrd, though, stands as synonymous of Southern Rock to the point that in the hackneyed hypothetical of "If Aliens Landed And Asked What [Subject] Is..." you would hand said alien a copy of Gold and Platinum: Lynyrd Skynyrd's Greatest Hits and call it a day. If the alien was still confused you'd probably suplement it with an Allman Brothers album, but the Allmans are a little on the jammy side, a little jazzy, a little highbrow, a variation on the ur-text. Skynyrd is the pure strain, the Platonic ideal of Southern Rock.

It's always impressive, then, when another band doesn't just display influences from a band like that (because, really, the whole point of being the Platonic ideal is that everyone genre-wide is influenced by your sound) but rather starts to seem like a complementary piece of the fundamental picture. There were points during the show when MMJ would launch into a set of dueling solos where it felt like watching the next step of Southern Rock; that they had not merely taken Skynyrd as an influence but had fully integrated the sound and philosophy and were serving as modern emissaries of it.

This I know runs counter to MMJ's stated goals of innovation and boredom with traditional rock structures, and as Evil Urges gives way to the next genre experiment I have no doubt that MMJ will follow the Wilco path of expanding into fresh territories only to encounter diminishing returns (I hold that Being There was Wilco's masterpiece, not Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, because it marked a true experimentation with roots rock orthodoxy instead of leaving it behind almost completely). This evolution has not reached their live show yet, though - if you've ever listened to "Sweet Home Alabama" and had it go straight to the heart despite the ossification of classic rock radio, you owe it to the 'Merican South to see this band before it's too late.

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