Solo efforts by a member of a successful ensemble can put that artist in a precarious spot. If they elect to stay with the mothership and said outfit is vital and active, then it becomes an awkward choice as to where to put all the energy going forward. Is it best to be a good soldier and contribute to the band’s well being, or better to bank on the future and gain all the capital you can? In other words, what constitutes the best use of one’s creativity and makes the most sense for when the sum total of a career is concerned?
Jim James has never seemed overly troubled by that dilemma. His day job with My Morning Jacket still appears lucrative, and given the band’s sprawling sound and still grand ambitions, it likely demands as much time as he can give it. On the other hand, it hasn’t deterred him from pursuing his own interests, whether making music of his own or simply sharing homage. His first individual effort, Tribute To, an EP released under the pseudonym Yim Yames, was dedicated to the music of George Harrison; his last, a set of covers entitled Tribute To 2. Then there was his contribution to the Woody Guthrie tribute album New Multitudes and his participation on a set of songs called Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, which found him joining Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Rhiannon Giddens and Taylor Goldsmith for a set of unreleased Bob Dylan songs.
His previous full-lengths of original material, Regions of Light and Sound of God and Eventually Even, proved he was capable of plotting his own course and distancing himself, however briefly, from his work with My Morning Jacket. With the release of Uniform Distortion, he proves he’s determined to do more than offer a few isolated endeavors.
Uniform Distortion, while not quite living up to its title in sound or substance, finds James pulling back on the atmospheric embellishment that characterized his earlier solo work and revving up the energy and intensity. Nearly every offering boasts an elevated level of drive and determination, a fervent exuberance that makes no apologies for lack of restraint. At times James recalls Neil Young in the company of Crazy Horse, even though he lacks Young’s plaintive wail. Even so, there’s no denying that the ardor characterizing such songs as “Better Late Than Never,” “Just a Fool,” and “You Get To Rome” add to the overall mix. Even a playful pop tune like “Over and Over” enhances that compulsive zeal.
That’s not to say James has turned his back entirely on the My Morning Jacket sound. Indeed, given its sweep, a track like “Out of Time” wouldn’t sound out of place on one of that band’s albums. There’s a still a touch of the metaphysical that James has yet to jettison, as evidenced by the cover photo which he found in an old copy of The Last Whole Earth Catalog. That, he claims, was his main inspiration for the effort originally. It was his way of trying to transcend the technology that’s taken over our lives and explore deeper meaning in a purer and simpler way.
Still, symbolism aside, he hints that it’s probably best not to take him too seriously either “Yes To Everything” starts out with a hearty laugh and finds him continuing to crack up throughout. Perhaps this is James’ idea of a joke, or some kind of flirtation with the universe, or perhaps simply an attempt at carve his own musical mantra. No matter really. In any case, it’s teasingly enticing.