ATO Records · June 29, 2018
Everyone’s heard everyday, garden-variety distortion. It’s the stuff that changes an electric guitar’s tone from prissy twanging to a badass hunk of rock n’ roll fury. Yeah, you know the stuff. But there’s more. There’s a special kind of degradation you get when you turn the dial up even further, a point where you start to lose control of when your guitar hums and when it screams. It’s a tremulous, barely contained sort of energy, like pumping too much air into a balloon and waiting for it to pop. It’s this sort of tone that Jim James swims in on his latest solo album Uniform Distortion, a piece of work that is, shall we say, uniformly distorted (haha). James applies a generous amount of crunch to every instrument he can get his hands on. Even his voice, which is normally cloaked in reverb, takes on a spooky, pinched tone from the fuzz. The resultant album is hard-hitting and compulsively listenable, but not for the reasons you’d expect.
Jim James, longtime frontman of My Morning Jacket, has always had a sound that is slightly left-of-center, but often only slightly. When MMJ started out, their label tried to brand them as alt-country, which sort of fit. There was a straightforward, meat-and-potatoes earnestness to them, but their presentation was never that simple. They recorded their music in an empty grain silo, and it gave their albums a cavernous, lonely quality that set them apart from the masses. On Uniform Distortion, Jim James pulls the same trick. These songs are, for the most part, straightforward rock and roll, hardly adventurous material. But the production makes them more than that. Several songs here could be pretty boring if they weren’t distorted all to hell. But, somehow, it all works out.
Beginning with ‘Just A Fool’ and ‘You Get To Rome,’ the record gets off to a safe start. These are fun songs, with plenty of squealing guitar riffs and “shalala” backup singing to keep things catchy, but they’re generic. This is music made for the sole purpose of rocking out and doing it hard, and not thinking too hard about it either. It feels tossed off, but in a way that’s carefree instead of half-assed. “Let’s rock!” James yelps halfway through ‘You Get To Rome,’ and then accepts his own invitation with abandon. He even breaks down laughing a few times throughout the album. It’s escapist, and the lyrics give some indication of what he’s escaping from: “Going through the motions with the mic in my hand,” “thinking about the ones who did just what they always said / Trying to find the strength it takes to become one of them.” Seems like he just wants to have fun, and who can blame him?
There are some pleasant surprises. ‘Out Of Time’ starts out in standard swaggering fashion, and then, on a dime, collapses into a dissonant, leering groove. ‘Throwback,’ fittingly, conjures the grandiosity of earlier My Morning Jacket material to great effect. It’s in things like those that you really have to love James’ voice, rough and untrained though it may be. It ain’t what the choirmaster ordered, but it’s a special kind of spectacular when the man opens up and howls like nobody’s listening. Other standouts include James’ ragged moans on closer ‘Too Good To Be True,’ a spacious ballad with a wounded heart.
So what is Jim James trying to accomplish at this point in his career? “I’m either behind the times or ahead of the times,” he groans, and it really is hard to tell which one’s true. He veers from powerful hair-metal riffing on ‘No Use Waiting’ to what could very well be a Fleetwood Mac cover on ‘No Secrets,’ touching on vintage influences, but squeezing them all through a brutally distorted filter. There’s something beautifully paradoxical about this kind of “lo-fi” music. It’s a style that can only exist now, when we’ve reached the peaks of clarity and high fidelity and decided in the end that they weren’t enough fun. You could call it regressive, but Uniform Distortion doesn’t sound vintage. James consistently complicates his relationship with the past on this record, including in the lyrics. “There was a time when I said yes to everything,” he reminisces at one point, but then cautions “I said yes too many times,” shaking off his baggage without quite forgetting it. These contradictions make Uniform Distortion a worthwhile listen, and more interesting than it quite deserves to be. It reaches for the past, paying homage to it, but not really trying to emulate it. Times have changed, and sometimes that’s ok.