My Morning Jacket's The Waterfall II is a logical step in the progression of this Kentucky band's career. It's a path that's taken a decidedly zig-zag pattern since the debut of The Tennessee Fire (Darla Records, 1999) and its follow-up At Dawn (Darla Records, 2001), arguably reaching its apogee with It Still Moves (ATO Records, 2003). From that point on, through successive records including Z (ATO, 2005), Evil Urges (ATO, 2008) and Circuital (ATO, 2011), as well as the namesake of this sequel album, Jim James and company have alternately toyed with and consciously cleaved close to the sound of that quintessential third album.
The Waterfall (ATO, 2015) came closest to the exalting nature of MMJ's discographical highlight, so it's not wholly surprising to see a second collection of tracks from the same recording sessions at the scenic California seaside locale from which the band professed to take so much inspiration (and rightly so, as captured in the photographic vistas included in this digi-pak). What is something of a revelation is the personal nature of much of the material: James is clearly speaking from his own heart on tunes like "Spinnin' My Wheels," and "Still Thinkin,'" while "Climbing the Ladder" is nothing if not a candid admission of humility.
These tunes radiate an emotional warmth missing from so much of the material he's composed in recent years, for this band and himself. And there's a markedly Beatlesque, otherworldly air arising from the dense, layered co-production (overseen by the author and engineer Tucker Martine) very much in keeping spiritual overtones in the material, elements that recall the solo work of the late George Harrison (whose songs comprised James' individual effort, the EP Tribute To (ATO, 2009).
And even the lush arrangement on the latter radiates no little heat. Featuring piano, pedal steel and razor-sharp electric guitar surrounding the author's heavily-echoed vocal, it's a sonic mix as entrancing as it is intoxicating. What may be most potent about the musicianship, however, is not only the potential it leaves for spontaneous improvisationon the latter track in the form of concise instrumental interludes featuring Carl Broemel's guitar and Bo Koster's keyboard(s)but the healthy distance the action helps maintain from the confessional tenor of lyrics like those of "Beautiful Love (Wasn't Enough)." For all his private professions though, Jim James does not inordinately separate himself from My Morning Jacket.
To thus discern the full effects of those recordings, it's not necessary to read the lyrics on the cryptic likes of those in "Magic Bullet." Printed in a simulated scrawl in the enclosed sixteen-page booklet, the words are perhaps as difficult to decipher in reading as listening to James sing them, but no matter: the sequence of tones, from the aforementioned brokenhearted air to the more lighthearted atmosphere in "Run It," are readily apparent anyway, in large part because the unity of the band echoes those feelings all the way down to the rhythm section of drummer Patrick Hallahan and bassist Tom Blankenship.
The nearly forty-five minutes of The Waterfall II proceed apace, and delightfully so, with nary a wasted or superfluous moment for the duration. That said, it's hard to deny the welcome sound of giant guitar chords and massed vocal chorale of "Wasted;" not that it's a re-write of "Mageetah" or "One Gig Holiday," but only that its borderline heavy-handed approach, even as it evolves sans singing, is ultimately an ideal placement in the ten-track sequencing of the LP. The drama thus conjured in the homestretch is palpable in and of itself, but particularly as it is immediately followed by a restful cut most appropriately titled "Welcome Home"
The effect becomes thoroughly cemented through the glimmering electric and precise acoustic guitars within "The First Time." The contrasting sounds through which James' voice wafts in out and around creates a tranquil sense of confidence that hasn't really been so thoroughly apparent on a My Morning Jacket album in quite a while. Yet, while it may deliver a great sense of pleasure to the quintet's fans, it may be even more potent to the music lover who's hearing the group for the first time. As a result, both demographics might well be prompted to (re) discover the prior discography of this eccentric, intriguing rock and roll band.
Spinning My Wheels; Still Thinkin’; Climbing the Ladder; Feel You; Beautiful Love (Wasn’t Enough); Magic Bullet; Run It; Wasted; Welcome Home; The First Time.
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