Jim James: Shadows & Light
In Manhattan’s Chelsea district, a block or so from where 27th Street meets the West Side Highway, there’s an address that, if you’re to believe a certain cunning website, plays hosts to the remains of one of New York’s most fabled hotels, the ill-fated McKittrick. “Condemned” at the dawn of World War II—just weeks before its opening—the luxury hotel was, until recently, “sealed from the public” for generations. In reality, the space has changed hands countless times since its fictional condemnation. And, today, it exists as the anti-Hotel California: Not only can you not check in, you’re expected to leave in two or three hours max.
The cavernous and beguiling space has, for the past 20 months, played host to a brilliant way-off-Broadway performance called “Sleep No More,” where instead of being handed a program and shown to their seats, attendees wander around five floors and a 100 rooms spread out over 100,000 square feet as actors perform in their midst, sometimes darting off to different rooms or other floors. Audience members, who must remain silent and required to wear masks, are free to chase after them or simply amble from room to room and enjoy one of the various performances, all happening concurrently.
Considering how the press has fawned over “Sleep No More” for its ingenuity and brazen, out-of-the box creativity, it’s a fitting place to encounter My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, who has been hailed for all the above. We’re here because James is a huge fan of “Sleep No More,” which he calls “un-believable.”
“It’s so fuckin’ psychedelic,” James enthuses from behind his famous reddish mane. “The audience has to wear masks, but the performers don’t. The place is giant and you can basically do whatever you want. You could walk around or just sit on this couch and watch different performers come in and out of scenes. You just kind of follow your mind. It’s wild.”
James has chosen the “Sleep No More” venue to talk about his own latest burst of creativity, Regions of Light and Sound of God, his first full-length solo album. If he’s spent much of his downtime in recent years recording and touring with collaborative side projects such as Monsters of Folk and New Multitudes, then the enchanting and low-key Regions is wholly James.
Tracking at his leisure, he recorded the album’s nine songs in his Louisville, Ky. home, playing a variety of instruments himself. In fact, the biggest helping hand comes from his old friend Dave Givan, the drummer in his first band Month of Sundays, who appears on five songs. He recruited others to add percussion and strings.
“In the Jacket, we have this core thing that happens when it’s us playing,” says James. “And because I love playing with them so much, there’s never a need for me to play keyboard, drums or bass or anything like that, but I love playing all those things. So this record was a chance for me to play all those things whenever I wanted. I didn’t have any pressure or time limit and I was able to work on it whenever I had the time.”
While his 2009 EP Tribute To was a strictly acoustic guitar-and-vocals collection of George Harrison covers, Regions is more of what one might expect from an LP of James originals—it’s a 360-degree tour of his various musical identities: There are hints of the soulman who’s rocked Bonnaroo and Madison Square Garden in the funky basslines dancing through “Dear One” and “Actress,” the caped and whimsical master of ceremonies that we might see onstage dancing in the dark and leading us through songs like “Victory Dance” opens the album with the slow-burning “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.),” and the acoustic troubadour of “Golden” returns for the lovely and earnest “New Life.”
Its kaleidoscope of sounds and styles—from almost shimmering pop to near waltzes, all varied and tuneful—is an aural testament of the 34-year-old James having a blast at home and building ideas that began as voice messages on his iPhone into living, breathing songs. It’s a pretty album, replete with gigabytes of ear candy, guitar tracks that dance and sing, and basslines worthy of a Bill Withers album.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
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Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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