Jim James is undoubtedly one of music’s most influential, innovative, and unpredictable individuals. As the front man of My Morning Jacket, he’s transformed the Louisville outfit from a southern-rock band to an indescribable tour-de-force. He’s produced some of the great albums of the decade, such as Basia Bulat’s Good Advice and Ray LaMontagne’s Ouroboros. Then there is his tireless work to give new life to classic records and sounds, bringing together big names to form supergroups. Monsters of Folk, The New Basement Tapes, and New Multitudes are the brainchild of one James Edward Olliges, Jr.
As a solo artist, James goes further off the map to deliver more surprises. He paid tribute to George Harrison under the moniker Yim Yames, reinterpreting The Beatles songs in a quiet, folk-driven way. As simply Jim James, he has taken more chances. His last solo album, Eternally Even, merged funk, soul, pop, and psychedelia into a tightly produced, well-manicured package. For his latest output, Uniform Distortion, James rewinds the clocks. Specifically, he heads back to the days when he and his band created heavy, guitar-driven music. To the days when they played with pedals and distortion effects and when innocence was their guide.
We share our First Impressions of Uniform Distortion. Does this “new-old” James continue to impress us or do we desire to hear the unpredictable Jim James of the past decade?
Uniform Distortion is out on ATO Records, and purchase and streaming links are available here. He also has an upcoming limited fall tour with many dates already sold out. You can view the tour schedule here.
Uniform Distortion sounds like Jim James narrating his arrival at the realization that he’s becoming an elder statesman of rock. The sounds are throwback, the songwriting is retro, and the lyrics are self-referential. Many casual listeners will know My Morning Jacket and James’s work for the arrays of classic guitar tones and earwormy riffs. While the riffs and tones are here in spades, what jumps out most to me is the lyric writing. James’ lyrics have varied greatly in his career, from plaintive plainspoken love songs in early MMJ to outwardly political in recent years. This album references James’s past and his present, and explores his current situation in plainspoken style. James’s vocal range is here for the sensitive folks, too, in the slow-burning “No Secrets”, which dials the raging fuzz back almost until halfway through, and then simmers with low energy until a shambolic guitar solo stumbles out and takes control. “Just a Fool” is the opposite. It shrieks in with a killer guitar lick and then immediately drops out for a moment with James, alone, foolish, at center stage. The standout for me is “Out Of Time”, which blisters in with ripping fuzzed-out guitars and the lyric
I’m either behind the times or ahead of the times
or maybe I’m just of time, out of luck, out of touch.
Combining rock n’ roll, a genre built upon youthful exuberance, with this kind of introspective and self-exploratory songwriting makes for a great album if you’re a Jim James fan, but I wonder if this album might be a little hard for a first-time listener to digest.
Jim James is no doubt one of the most talented under the radar guitar players out there today. Uniform Distortion is his newest solo offering and it’s nostalgic and quite amazing. As he sings “When We Were Young…” on “Throwback” he speaks to that nostalgia and also recognizes the importance of living in the now and being loved.
Uniform Distortion is most definitely his most personal as he tackles his shortcomings on “Just A Fool” and the realities of a few regrets on “Yes To Everything” which has him at his most playful within his vocal delivery. He also wails on guitar which is an impressive display of his talent on this track and would undoubtedly be an insane song to witness live. “You Get To Rome” is an awesome rocker that has perfect distortion and just the right amount of energy.
“All In Your Head” speaks to the importance of our actions with lyrics that state: “use your heart and not your head, we’re here right now” which reminds us all to not over think things and also to be smart with choosing what we do say to others. “Better Late Than Never” is super short but very upbeat and melodious.
“Over and Over” speaks to the repeating of mistakes within our government and the world and the best lyric of unity is “when do we realize we could all be lovers and friends”. The closer “Too Good To Be True” is a ballad that speaks to a relationship that definitely went wrong as he states “I guess I just keep movin’ on…” which might just sum up his career, his life and dealing with disappointments and struggles in life. We all need to just keep movin’ on.
Growing up listening to raw and amazing talent as rock continues to demonstrate it can timeless and legendary no matter what era that it was produced. Some artists may try too hard to be “retro” but this display from Mr. James seems effortless and free. Uniform Distortion proves that modern day legends can strip everything back and produce something that is still magical. Thumbs up as this will be another album to easily be spun over and over again from start to finish.
“I’m either behind the times or ahead of the times or maybe I’m just out of time, out of luck, out of touch”, Jim James sings on the grizzled rocker “Out of Time”. This line captures the tone and vision of Uniform Distortion, which is an unexpected, old-school rocker from one of music’s great visionaries. For forty minutes, James wails on his guitar, delivering heavy riffs and awesome guitar solos reminiscent of My Morning Jacket in their prime. And that is the point – to recapture the unbridled energy when James and his mates were old enough to vote but not of age to legally drink. Boy does he hit the mark and then some, delivering arguably his (and MMJ’s) best record since their acclaimed Z.
The fiery “Yes to Everything” is raw and energizing, akin to MMJ’s anthemic classic, “Anytime”. Even heavier is the head-smashing “You Get To Rome”, which James splashes with some ’60s pop in the chorus, while melodic grooves slice through the catchy “Throwback”. It’s not just the sound, however, that gives the album its flashback feeling, but James’ lyrics beckon to a past life. To moments in time that he holds close and longs for again. On “Throwback”, for instance, he discusses how once inseparable friends are now traveling down “separate paths”.
The most telling of the songs is the opener “My Fool”. As the distortion fills his flying vee on the former, James calmly reflects on his career and how he’s “doing all right” with the mic in his hand. Away from the stage, however, he battles demons. Most revealing are the lyrics, “getting loaded to get away from the pain”, which may reference to his severe back injury from a few years ago and other wounds not viewable to the naked eye.
A James album, though, wouldn’t be complete without some political banter. The catchy and playful “Better Late Than Never” features one of the year’s great lines – “Empires fall to the ground, we are delighted by the crush”. The ’60s rock ‘n roll ear-worm “Over and Over” addresses how people and governments continue to repeat the same mistakes of the past. Specifically, “we drop the same bombs / put up the same walls / we block the same roads, over and over again”. Leave it to James, though, to make a political tune sound fun and endearing.
The record, though, will be remembered as James’ most introspective and personal, revealing a side to him rarely seen or heard. It’s a side that feels free, feels at home. While Uniform Distortion may not be his most inventive, it’s his best solo album. It is James unrestrained and unplugged. More importantly, the most honest he’s been. (Granted, it would be great to hear what the full MMJ band can do with these songs.)
Share This Article On...
Follow The Revue On...