Jim James would be known to many as the golden-voiced eccentric at the forefront of Louisville, Kentucky-based group My Morning Jacket, who transitioned from playing in a “new cosmic Americana” style to a more psychedelic pop direction, gaining acclaim during the 2000s with fantastic albums such as It Still Moves (2003) and Z (2005). In more recent years, with the group’s output growing a little stale, James has embarked on a solo career, formally making his debut in 2013 with the ornate Regions of Light and Sound of God. He followed it up in 2016 with the dense electro-psychedelic effort Eternally Even, with an urgently political undertone, not coincidentally released the week of Donald Trump’s election.
Uniform Distortion comes a fairly short time after Eternally Even and is basically the opposite of that album, as James does away with the layers of dreamy instrumentation, trading it in for a straightforward three-piece band set-up (featuring David Givan on drums and Seth Kaufman on bass), with the whole album seemingly recorded live in the studio with minimal overdubs. On the surface, this is a good idea, especially given My Morning Jacket’s well-known live prowess – to just strip things back to the basics and to rock out in an uncomplicated way. The record certainly sounds good – everything is coated in that warm analogue fuzz, the guitars have a real crunch to them (the title doesn’t lie!) and all is capped off with the rich additional vocals courtesy of Jamie Drake, Kathleen Grace and Leslie Stevens.
Unfortunately, while the production side of things sounds good, the songs, for the most part, simply aren’t there. With a format as comparatively limiting as the three-piece band set-up, the songwriting would have to be consistently engaging the whole way through, and sadly, more often than not, these ideas don’t quite carry through. One may notice from the outset that James’ voice has a rather ragged quality as opposed to the golden, resonant voice he showcased throughout MMJ’s discography. While it could certainly turn some listeners off, after a time it actually melds fairly well with the record’s production and turns out to be one of the least of its problems. It feels almost as though there are maybe three or four actual songs being re-written several times throughout. Even when the songs do deviate, like on “Out Of Time,” which starts off more or less the same as “You Get To Rome” just before it, it just turns into a dismal one-chord dirge, with the guitar going into a metallic screeching, which could be either a curious or a very grating sound. It also doesn’t help that fairly little of interest happens after track five – the stretch between “No Secrets” and “Over And Over” barely worth mentioning. On occasion, James throws in some ad-libs like “cut loose now” and sometimes even cracking up laughing in the middle of a line – while at first, it’s goofy in a kind of endearing way, eventually it starts to irritate – perhaps the most on “Yes To Everything” – as though he’s going over the top to show us that he’s having fun, even if it is genuine.
The good stuff? Well, it opens well enough, with the blazing guitar riffs of “Just A Fool”, which works up a decent cowbell-driven stomp. Lyrically, it introduces the main theme of aging, getting old and going through the motions – not that there is too much complexity in the words that James sings. “You Get To Rome” is one of the more playful and driving tunes. It’s those aforementioned additional vocals that really make it, not to mention it’s probably the one place where the impromptu laughs and ad-libs don’t feel irritating, though it could just be as it comes early in the album. A bit of that energy is carried over towards the end, with the refreshingly brief “Better Late Than Never”. “Throwback” might be the one song on here that’s consistently enjoyable all the way through – despite the slightly banal lyrics, it has a genuinely touching melody and sentiment that speaks to wistful reminiscence and nostalgia. And the album ends decently as well, with the bittersweet “Too Good To Be True”, whose title speaks for itself – a downtempo melancholic number which feels lonely but comforting, with what sounds like Wurly keyboards showing up among the angelic harmonies.
At the of the day, Uniform Distortion is clearly not an album that takes itself too seriously. Perhaps given the right mood and context it can be enjoyed as a fun, uncomplicated listen. There really isn’t anything wrong with that – it’s understandable that James would do something comparatively more light-hearted and stripped-back after the dark and layered Eternally Even. It’s just that on closer listening, many of the songs really lack engaging ideas and the record comes across as slightly tossed off. Here’s hoping it may have just been one that James had to get out of his system, rather than a sign of things to come.