The MMJ train took a radical turn in 2008, departing from the southern rock charm that earned them a legion of loyalty from mud-covered Bonnaroo vets and highbrow critics alike. Airing out their innermost prog-funk desires, Evil Urges was not as much a celebrated game-changer (a la Radiohead) as it was an interesting experiment with flashes of good and endearingly bad ideas. So this 6th album should be greeted with one collective sigh of relief, as the band lands somewhere between that strange, brass ambition and those golden soundscapes they do best. Recorded in a church gymnasium in their hometown of Louisville, Circuital has a come-full-circle feel. Subjects are nostalgic while execution flirts with the future. It’s refreshing reassurance that there’s no need to worry about one of the best bands of last decade, not delivering in this one.
Just how far can one infectious melody take you? Ask NYC boy/girl blog-darlings Cults, who at this time last year saw their 60s pop sing-along “Go Outside” take a clean sweep through the internet, further pushed by a stepping-stone deal with Gorilla vs. Bear’s label and a Rising feature on Pitchfork, all before ever playing a show. By summer, they were hitting a notable neighborhood venue near you. By fall, they were recording an LP with Columbia Records. Quite the inspiring canon shot, but unfortunately when the dust settles, no other song can touch that first basement-to-bandcamp demo, even with the production help of Shane Stoneback (Vampire Weekend, Sleigh Bells). They sure try; that delightful xylophone keeps poking its head into all the choruses and Madeline Follin’s cutesy croon bounces right along with it. The near-hits and misses are pretty forgivable given how long they’ve been at it; a lesson learned, everybody relax and give the kids some space to grow.
Last week we saw Thurston Moore peel back layers of noise to reveal a man in middle-aged thought—a brilliant change-up for the rock icon. And here we have a similar scenario, though perhaps less surprising; Eddie Vedder has always hovered over that balladry button, some of Pearl Jam’s best songs are the softer ones, then there’s his moving contributions to 2007’s Into The WildUkulele Songs; this little instrument’s been in his bag since a beer-run in Hawaii 15 years ago. Vedder is at peace here, just collecting old campfire favorites, covers and originals. If that voice feels like an old friend, this record should make for a nice hang.
They’re back and that simple fact, at this point, matters only to their most devoted fans who’ve long since graduated from classrooms to cubicles, and some big label marketing minds. Let’s face it, Death Cab jumped shark around the same time they crossed over (Plans into Narrow Stairs) passing that threshold where this sort of sincere heart-dragging shouldn’t feel so comfortable on the radio. Fortunately, Codes and Keys is more aligned with the band’s present age. Not quite dad-rock, but a step past meaningful teen drama scenes. Unfortunately, that leaves their right audience in question.