My Morning Jacket, "Circuital" (ATO) () -- Our favorite Kentucky neo-classic rockers received a deserved drubbing for the corny gags and R&B experiments on 2008's "Evil Urges." (Stylistic innovators on par with Wilco? Harrumph!) So the whispers ahead of the follow-up assured the faithful of a return to roots. While there's some of that -- and singer Jim James sings in the title track, somewhat panicky, about "ending up in the same place that we started out" -- "Circuital" is a laid-back swirl through the sounds and styles of the band's acclaimed 12-year career. It's not a high-water mark for them, and a few songs sound lazy and unfinished, but it's analog-warm, occasionally pleasant and likely will sound more impressive resonating from festival stages (such as Lollapalooza) this summer.
Perhaps James took the criticism of those urges to heart. He opens "Circuital" making fanfare trumpet sounds with his mouth in the otherwise restrained "Victory Dance," asking, "Should I wet the ground with my own tears crying over what's been done?" He quickly concludes that he will "believe in my own work" and sets about it -- first saying he hopes to watch the victory dance, then wanting to join it. But repeated references to the end of the day and the setting sun reinforce a sense of resignation that pervades the rest of the album. The beachy lope of "The Day Is Coming," the funereal closer "Movin' Away," James' recent announcement of a solo album -- all the stuffy air around "Circuital" smells like a band about to throw the switch, or at least take a nice long vacation.
The main problem with "Circuital" is that James sounds as if he's already left. Most of these songs, even the sappy love ballad "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)," are fortified with basic elements that should catch fire, but James' ho-hum spirit never provides the spark. The band's limp sense of humor occasionally lifts things above a ponderous Doobie Brothers vibe. The rhythmic drive and airy harmonies of "Outta My System" play like an anti-drug PSA recorded in the '60s by Cicero's the American Breed, and "Holdin' on to Black Metal" applies synthesized horns and a choir to some R&B swing, however tepid. Those evil urges continue, but in "First Light" MMJ lays down a funk-rock groove that finally coalesces, even if James' singing has about as much soul as the office chair I'm sitting in. He repeatedly misses every opportunity to raise our gooseflesh, so "Circuital" mostly just goes round and round.
Tune in: Director Todd Haynes helms a live webcast of My Morning Jacket's concert at a Louisville, Ky., theater at 8 p.m. May 31. Watch it here.
Also out on Tuesday ...
Dave Matthews Band, "Live at Wrigley Field" -- The DMB is off the road this year -- well, technically, but they're playing four Caravan festivals including July 8-10 in Chicago -- but fans can tide themselves over with this two-disc, 20-song set chronicling the band's Sept. 18, 2010 show at Wrigley (the second of their two shows there).
Kate Bush, "Director's Cut" -- The beloved British artist revisits tracks from two previous albums, "The Sensual World" and "The Red Shoes," recording all new vocals and, in the case of three songs (including "This Woman's Work"), presenting entirely new recordings. "For some time, I have felt that I wanted to revisit tracks from these two albums and that they could benefit from having new life breathed into them," Bush says. "I think of this as a new album."
The Vaccines, "What Did You Expect From the Vaccines?" () -- Britain's Vaccines were the other deafening buzz band at SXSW in March (the buzziest was Yuck), and their debut full-length likewise falls just short of the hype. They're turning over tilled ground, for sure, but check the title. It's fertile post-punk ground, at least, and the Vaccines tunesmith it with tons of reverb and finesse and Strokesy confidence (attitude). But many songs are downright dull, and eventually it's clear that our expectations of a new and unique sound are met only with a heap of influences.
Eddie Vedder, "Ukulele Songs" -- Pearl Jam's leader catches up to the ukulele trend and strums out a whole album of love songs to his wife and daughters on the tiny guitars. Guests include Glen Hansard (Frames, Swell Season) and Chan Marshall (Cat Power).
Death Cab for Cutie, "Codes and Keys" -- The guitar-based band attempts to broaden its sound on its seventh album, adding analog synthesizers and strings.