At first listen, Jim James’ first proper solo album might sound a bit alien to fans of his daytime gig, My Morning Jacket. It’s an intangible thing to pin down — vocally, James sounds as dynamic and distinctive as he ever has on record, and musically, Regions of Light and Sound of God bears a few particularly distinctive earmarks of his other band’s inimitable style. The vast, canyon-scaling vocals, the slow-burn funk that seeps into ambient soundscapes… it’s all there. It’s recognizably Jim James. So what’s different?
Well, for starters, say what you will about My Morning Jacket, but don’t call them boring. That would be patently false — even at their lowest point (most fans would say 2008’s Evil Urges), they were never uninteresting. In fact, the single track many ex-fans point to as the moment they threw in the towel — that album’s “Highly Suspicious” — is controversial precisely because it’s so ludicrous. An ’80s funk jam filtered through MMJ’s reverb-laden southern rock, drenched in campy falsetto? It’s difficult to accuse Mr. James of ever spinning his wheels.
Regions of Light spends some time sounding like that proverbial wheel-spinning, though, inasmuch as something this elegaic and diverse can ever sound staid. Jim doesn’t sell “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.)” immediately, a repetitive Steely Dan-esque melody leaning lazily on a minor-chord piano figure, but he layers it admirably, accentuating the song’s slow-burn groove with a series of almost-imperceptible musical accents, until you’ve been sucked into the track’s intriguing mysticism without really realizing it. Much of Regions of Light works this way; songs rarely stand out on their own, James preferring to cultivate a very specific form of ambiance. Songs don’t so much shape-shift as they grow — like “State of the Art”, the record’s opening number, “Know Til Now” lays down a foundation and adds things to it, including bigger drums and skronky little bass farts and a choir of ghostly Jims all intoning in echo-chamber harmony, pulling back at crucial times to create dynamics before it’s all in again. It’s more mood music than anything; there’s nothing quite as exultant as some of My Morning Jacket’s roaring highs, but it’s pretty committed to consistency.
Which is surprising, considering the vast amount of sonic influences Jim manages to weave into this album. MMJ were never easily categorized, but they could always be counted on to hang around somewhere near the intersection of Southern-Fried Road and Soul Boulevard; Jim, on the other hand, throws Middle Eastern mysticism, warm ’70s r&b, icy ’80s funk, modal jazz, and dissonant folk into the mix. It’s to his credit that Regions of Light has the consistency of sound that it does – it’s a solo album in every sense of the word, Jim responsible for nearly every note of music on the album, and he almost creates a new genre out of the buckets of genre textures he throws against his canvas. Sometimes he lets the grooves ride too long, and the songs threaten to become sleepy; when he keeps things pared down, as on the delightful toe-tapper “New Life”, he excels.
Regions of Light and Sound of God is a lot less pretentious than its title might suggest — Jim James is an innovative man, bursting with ideas, but he’s never willfully opaque or experimental, preferring to delicately weave his influences in subtly. It’s a supremely listenable experience, sometimes almost too much so — the back half of the record lulls itself to sleep in a lot of ways, and it’s never bad, it’s just really good background noise. And yet, when Jim hits the sweet spot, he’s right where he’s supposed to be — a smart songwriter who doesn’t sacrifice emotion for innovation, a stellar singer with an instantly recognizable vocal tone, a consummate artist.