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Coldplay, My Morning Jacket and the Perils of Success...

           

After reading articles in the New York Times about My Morning Jacket’s possible breakthrough (with Evil Urges) and the encouraging sales of Coldplay’s Viva la Vida…, I started thinking earlier today about career trajectories and what it means for a band to have promise. More to the point, I was thinking about why I’m not as encouraged by what I hear on their latest releases as the critics singing their praises are.

The difference, in many ways, is a function of differences in taste. It Still Moves CD CoverWith My Morning Jacket, I was immediately taken when I heard songs from It Still Moves shortly after I moved to Chicago in 2003. The intense grain-silo reverb on Jim James’s voice and the not-at-all straightforward approach to guitar rock were among the items that caught my ear. Where Coldplay is concerned, I found similar things to enjoy. Songs like “Spies” and “High Speed” from their debut Parachutes struck me as fresh, unpretentious guitar rock. Parachutes CD CoverI even loved the CD package, which tucked the band photo deep in the booklet. Like some of my favorite artists in the past, it seemed this group—the same could be said of MMJ—was focused more on its music than its image. The operative word in that last sentence is “seemed.” As Coldplay tries to re-establish its superstar status and MMJ makes what some critics believe is a bid for the same, I’m wondering both about what might have been lost and what might have been.

Coldplay’s ascent from obscurity to stardom was swift. In December of 2000, I was pushing them on my friends. By March of 2001, I didn’t have to as I watched, if such a thing is possible, in mild horror as my least favorite song from the album, “Yellow,” became a huge hit for the group. That was the song where Chris Martin’s faux-expressive strategy of going back and forth over the break in his voice (that whiny, yodelly sound) really started to annoy me. That tic might also be the one that inspired Creation Records founder Alan McGee to describe Coldplay’s work as “bed wetter’s music.” Of course, it’s not the band’s “fault” nor is it a bad thing that they developed a large audience. We might even place more blame for what troubles me about them at the feet of celebrity-obsessed media. That is, those outlets that might make one forget that there are three other capable performers—guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion—who have been essential in crafting the group’s sound. And it’s really the specific changes in sound that have increasingly left me cold over the last seven years or so. Where the first album seemed a band project, the three subsequent releases have seemed more like the Chris Martin show, as guitars increasingly cede the soundstage to piano and voice. Even more, what was epic early on seems to have become banal formula. Viva la Vida... CD CoverAs I said to Cortney after giving the latest album the first listen, it did very little to command my attention—superstar producers, intense promotion and heartfelt pronouncements notwithstanding. How anyone could describe this music as “bruising,” “swaggering” or “surprising” is beyond me. True, some tracks—like “Lost!”—do make my heart beat a little faster, but many of the others—like “Yes”—just make me groan. I can’t say this record is destined for the heavy play that other favored releases have gotten in the past. I can’t even say that it’ll always remind me of this summer. At least the band photo is still the least prominent image in the booklet.

If my feelings about Viva la Vida… are mixed, my thoughts on Evil Urges are confused. To put it succinctly, I’ve always wanted My Morning Jacket to be big. They are brilliant, inspiring live performers. When I saw them perform at the Vic Theatre in October 2005, they blew me away. If you want sonic evidence, download the show, and tell me you don’t wish you had been there. At the time, they were touring to support Z, Z CD Coveran album that found them taking some chances and working with veteran producer John Leckie, who helped to rescue a little band called Radiohead from being one-hit wonders with his work on The Bends. Despite the changes, MMJ still sounded like themselves. With the latest album, I’m a lot less sanguine about the experimentation. What gets me is that, while every song starts out engaging, my interest quickly flags. One of the tracks that has been mentioned in each review I’ve read, “Highly Suspicious,” seems a horrible misstep to me. Evil Urges CD CoverI applaud them for taking it in some ways, but really wish they’d left out the low male background vocals. They turn what might have been a cool experiment into something kitschy—and not in that ironic sense so beloved by the hipsters. The album isn’t a total bust, though. Two tracks later, they got me with as perfect a paean to ’70s soft rock as anyone could want with “Thank You Too!” They don’t sacrifice the guitar sounds that are their signature, and the harmonizing on the chorus is absolutely dreamy. There are, to be sure, a bunch of other great songs on the album (“Sec Walkin,” “Librarian” and “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2” among them), but it’s still hard for me to hear this as a fully realized album. Like the Coldplay release, this one seems to tack back and forth between safety and experimentation, and the two aren’t comfy bedfellows in this case.

So, where do those comments leave us? The two albums under review have their bright moments, and both are supposed to do something wonderful for their creators’ careers. But what’s the price of that wonderfulness? It’s not so simple as saying that a band is selling out (or continues to do so). It’s more a matter of the terms on which one achieves success. Does one go with the tried and true (Coldplay), or the experimentation and conventional songcraft that might draw a larger audience (MMJ)? However you might answer that question, I know how I feel. I’m the last person to want a band to keep doing the same thing over and over (though I’m fine when Sade does it), but I want departures to make sense, to be reconcilable with what has gone before. Even more, I don’t like being abandoned. Maybe it’s the case with both of these bands that that’s how I’m feeling—almost as though there were some sort of bait-and-switch thing happening: this is not what I signed up for. I wish both groups continued success, but I might not, so to speak, turn up at the next party…

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