This week: Williams gets older; Jackson’s influences get younger; and MMJ is born again
Williams’ fifth studio record finds her disengaged from the single-minded, singer-songwriter approach. Her records have always sounded like fleshed-out versions of solo performances, like demos layered in a casserole of additional tracks—full but not necessarily of a piece. My Better Self , with contributions from her touring band and previous collaborators, is truly a band’s version of Williams’ songs that are as poignant and personal as ever.
The opening track, “Teen for God,” displays her unique ability to channel youthful hope tempered by an adult’s knowing. And although Williams herself is now married with a son, she revisits the yearning of perpetual soulmate-seeking in “I’ll Miss You ‘Til I Meet You,” a wistful guitar ballad with heartrending strings and harmonica.
The disc takes on a ‘70s vibe via vibraphone on “Beautiful Enemy,” “Liar” and the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1979 classic rock staple “Comfortably Numb” with eerie doubled vocals by Ani DiFranco. The duet is interesting as a novelty, but does anyone (besides stoned teenagers) ever really need to hear this song again? I think not.
The better cover is “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.” Played with little more than an acoustic guitar and mandolin, withbacking vocals by Marshall Crenshaw, Neil Young’s 1969 single sounds like a timeless testimony to teen-angst. Even though the song isn’t hers, Williams uses it to her advantage, striking that familiar chord between youthful optimism and adult cynicism. Dar may be growing up, but she’s making sure life doesn’t lose its sweet poignancy.
The new focus is entirely welcome, although the end result does not wholly satisfy. Since saxophonist Grover Washington’s passing, few have skillfully and honestly explored the potential of the funk/soul/jazz continuum, a rich source of accessible and visceral sounds. In Jackson’s hands, the style is elevated, remaining organic and spontaneous, and for the most part resistant to programmatic high-gloss slickness. Moreover, the effect on Jackson’s personal style is striking, his tenor sounding more relaxed and unhurried than ever, with less stridency, more warmth.
Nevertheless, Have You Heard contains several moments of extreme gratuitousness—the bass-slap happy “Quik,” the saccharine cover of “Summertime” (despite Jackson’s fine solo), and the entirely unnecessary final cut, “Funky in Here (Reprise),” for example. Overall, Have You Heard is a mixed bag, with moments of great fun interrupted by the superfluous.
My Morning Jacket
When we talked to MMJ in June, Tommy explained that Z would be “less acoustic. There’s a couple slower tunes on there, definitely some rockin’ stuff, but also some fun summertime stuff, with the feel of riding along in your car on a country road. And there’s some ass-shaking stuff in there too.” Tommy was decidedly correct, though he didn’t mention dreary, Radiohead-esque numbers like “It Beats for You” and a sweetly meandering, piano-rich love song like “Knot Comes Loose.” Besides releasing its wave-making fourth album, MMJ’s got a part in the upcoming Cameron Crowe flick Elizabethtown , filmed in Kentucky, the band’s home state. The guys play a local band that performs a rendition of Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” Catch ‘em also at Blue Cats on Friday, Oct. 7 at 8 p.m. with Kathleen Edwards (see music story).