Review: “Regions of Light and Sound of God” by Jim James

Jim JamesIt’s hard for someone as dynamic as Jim James to distinguish himself from a band whose sound is so inextricably linked to his talents. Every bourbon-fueled track by the guitarist/singer/songwriter’s band My Morning Jacket already bears his unique fingerprint. He’s the lifeblood of the group Rolling Stone has dubbed the “Southern Led Zeppelin.” A solo album, then, becomes an odd (and somewhat unnecessary) undertaking for a guy who has no shortage of complete creative control.

So why do it? The popular notion of a solo album is an attempt to define one’s own sound. But, as mentioned above, James doesn’t really need that outlet. My Morning Jacket is his own sound. So what more could he possibly offer?

The staccato alphabetic recitations of “State of the Art” don’t bode well for a distinguished “Jim James” sound. He might as well have employed MMJ if he was going to duplicate their songs. No, the opening track has “Circuital” written all over it: a gently pulsing piano, the catchy twitch of a hi-hat, and, of course, a gradually building vocal swell.

But once he gets it out of his system, the rest of the album deviates from MMJ’s well-established grandiosity. In fact, it deviates from just about everything. What unfolds over the course of the next eight tracks is a soulful, almost spiritual exploration of a bizarre variety of sonic realms. From the crooning doo-wop beats of “New Life” to the snake-charming allure of “All is Forgiven” to the folksy Simon & Garfunkel-esque chirps of “God’s Love to Deliver,” James fires a scattershot array of retrospective tunes.

It’s a more personal approach for a singer who’s spent the past few years playing stadium shows and festivals for hundreds of thousands of fans. He’s front and center with one of rock’s biggest little bands on a regular basis. With MMJ, then, studio songs will inevitably be arranged for live performance, and thus require a certain shape and energy. A solo album gives James a chance to write not for the throngs and the masses, but to write for James.

On “Regions of Light and Sound of God” Jim James seems bent on ditching everything beside himself that defines MMJ: the soaring guitar crescendos, the screaming choruses and the jump-around-your-living-room-naked tempos. What’s left is just Jim. Soulful, falsetto Jim. And with a guy as prolific as the Kentucky-bred 34-year-old, that’s enough. His echo-chamber vocals weave a unifying thread through his barrage of genre-hopping tracks in a manner that’s strangely more hip-hop than it is blues (or however you would define MMJ).

It’s intimate, it’s personal, and it’s–at times–a little boring. But it’s Jim James. Nothing else.