REVIEW: Jim James - "Regions of Light and Sound of God"

30 comments
Jim James - Regions of Light and Sound of God
Record Label - ATO
Release Date - Feb. 5, 2013


There's something unquestionably pretentious about Jim James.  Here's a game: find the corniest word that you can and see how many times he uses it on his new album Regions of Light and Sound of God, one of the most inflated album titles ever.  There's more "stardust" when you're near?  Really?  More stardust?  What the fuck does that mean? James' slide toward the incomprehensible is not a new thing.  We could all feel the sands shifting underneath us with MMJ's Evil Urges.  So, there was only one big question I had to answer with the release of James's solo debut:  would this be my morning breaking point?

Sentimentality has been one of the strengths of James' songwriting.  All the way back when MMJ was an alt-country outfit, their most successful tracks were dripping with a grand naiveté -- see "I Will Be There When You Die" or "Heartbreakin' Man."  So, it's obvious that when left to his own devices, James would play up what he does best by merging intriguing instrumentation with his own hackneyed and haughty brand of songwriting.  The second big change from the James of MMJ to the James of the "Sound of God" is losing any pretensions of roots sounds.  This record, along with Ducktails' The Flower Lane, are the foremost examples of the re-Todd Rundgren-ization of music.  Both James and Ducktails sound like they've been holed up in a studio somewhere twiddling knobs till they get that perfect 70s singer-producer sound.  God knows how they did it, but it works and like gang busters on both of these records.  "Dear One" outshines the ponderous absurdity and anti-climatic songwriting of the album's opener "State of the Art (A, E, I, O, U)" if for no other reason than the fantastic production and instrumentation.  "Of the Mother Again" is another highlight where James merges the right instrumentation for a surprisingly evocative track.  But, needless to say, if you're coming at this looking for mammoth guitar solos or some wink, wink take on a country track, look elsewhere.  "Actress" has more in common with AM Gold than it does with It Still Moves.

Though, in all fairness, I have to ask -- if you were looking at James to return to a pre Z sound, where have you been?  If nothing else has become clear in the past few MMJ albums, it's that James' vision has overridden everything else in the band.  Is it really fair to call this a solo-album?  Haven't the last two (if not more) MMJ albums been more or less solo?  Yet, there is something that feels much more solitary here.  James has cast himself in a prophetic role and accompanied himself with what seems like sample-machines.  You can get the image of him on tracks like "Know Till Now" with his cape, a jumpsuit, a disco-ball and a bunch of mirror balls flashing every which way dancing alone on the stage.  If there is one thing that seems to have gone on this record it's the even pretense that James needs anyone else to do what he wants to do on Sound of God it's all him, for better or worse.

I'm not trying to be overly pessimistic or even degrading.  I love Elliott Smith and God knows that guy was probably an asshole perfectionist in the studio insisting on a singularity of vision that excluded just about everyone else.  What bothers me about James doing it is that, well, he never seemed to be that way prior to MMJ's latest, subpar output, and this record.  If anything, there was a way in which having to battle, struggle, and fight with his bandmates made James better.  In Sound of God he's left to his own devices which, I'm afraid, appear more arrogant than substantial.  "I  Will Be There When You Die" asserts commitment and dedication beyond the grave; Sound of God implies that you've got an extra-sensory connection to the Almighty.  At least James has backed it up with some first rate production and instrumentation, but the substance is glaringly thin despite a self-proclaimed evangelicalism.


30 comments:

  1. Amen. Finally someone said it.

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  2. I disagree. Perhaps cynicism is not the best way to approach an album like this. Following the stardust line, Jim even asks, with a slight chuckle, am i being sincere?. The best MMJ albums are the ones he did himself, Chocolate and Ice, and The Tennessee Fire. This is a grown mans version of those albums, you can hear the influence of new friends, like the Black Keys and Preservation Hall Jazz Band and I love every minute of it. But, ive never been a guitar guy. You need a healthy dose of pretension to be Jim James. I commend him, rather than fault

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  3. Look, some of your criticisms are fair, some maybe even spot on, but I think you may be confusing pretense with playfulness. Pretense? I think of Billy Corgan, Oasis, Creed, bands imagining themselves the greatest ever before anyone else does, striking "Christ-like poses" in slow-motion, with the force of expectation and pride eventually breaking up the band. Playfulness is something other, and can look like pretense because the artist is enjoying himself so much, and continuing to do what made him successful in the first place, which is indulging his creative muse.

    Pretense is an easy label to stick on success in any form, but it's also one that threatens to backfire on the critic if he's not careful. After all, it's just music.

    Plus, you just gotta be careful about labeling an artist "pretentious" when your blog is named "We Listen For You."

    And FYI, anyone I've ever asked who knows him personally claims that Jim is one of the most affable, down-to-earth, kind and considerate individuals you are bound to meet.

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  4. Did he shit in your morning éclair or what? What an absurd approach to a music review. This hardly touches the music (you know, what it's actually all about) and focuses almost entirely on the man himself. You don't seem to have your facts straight either:

    "What bothers me about James doing it is that, well, he never seemed to be that way prior to MMJ's latest, subpar output, and this record."

    But as someone else pointed out, "Chocolate and Ice" and "Tennessee Fire" were done largely as solo efforts as well as many of the songs off "the Sandworm Cometh" and "Learning". All of these recordings were far more experimental than what would come later on in their career. It's more obvious now that he wanted to go in a different direction with his musical output than where MMJ was going.

    Your opinion pretty much boils down to "jim james is a self-centered douche so his album is poo poo". This review is poo poo and a disservice to an extremely talented human being who has been an enormous benefit to this city. Try getting back to music reviews...

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    Replies
    1. You're awesome. I love you. We should be friends.

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  5. To Above,
    the reviewer talks about the album quite a bit if you read it.

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  6. It's a bad album. If it wasn't Jim James nobody would care.

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  7. sounds like you've had this review in your pocket for quite some time.

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  8. My only take on this review is that I wish you would not compare it to "past lives" and "past album." Just review it as a singular entity. Not saying I disagree with you, but it takes away from the review of the actual album. When you write a review like this, it automatically makes him take the " prophetic role "

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  9. titling something "sound of god" doesn't make you sound like a prophet?

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  10. You're an idiot. I hate you. Boo, you whore.

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  11. Just review it as a singular entity? So the author has to disregard any context (including the artist's previous output and their impressions of it) whatsoever? What an absurd thing to ask of an album review.

    You guys who are upset about this review do realize one person's negative take doesn't invalidate any enjoyment you get from the album, right?

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  12. Hehe! Cunning and self-serving blogger bashes hometown hero! Next time you need a traffic boost, just post pictures of your tits.

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  13. To the brave Anonymous person above. I didn't write this review but I'm a co-founder of WLFY. I'm all for conflicting opinions but you have your head up your ass if you think this post was about hits. 1.) He posted it almost two months after the album was released...if you want hits, post reviews before or right when an album is released. 2.) We don't have a single ad on our site, so doing posts for hits is meaningless...we like it that way. 3.) send me your e-mail and you'll get that picture. 4.) Think before you write.

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  14. Also, you're a sexist douche 3:54PM Anonymous fuckhead

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  15. Oh, I thought long and hard before I wrote, Zach Hart. And Brianna, study the etymology of 'douche' as a pejorative before you call anyone else sexist, you fool.

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  16. Hehe! Cunning self-righteous internet commentator uses anonymous platform to bash something they obviously don't understand! Next time you need an ego boost, just comment on Gawker.

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  17. Pardon me for violating the terms of your echo chamber. Geeee-zus.

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  18. Why the hell are you guys throwing such a fit over the backlash against this review? Didn't you expect it to be like this? You're trashing one of Louisville's great artists. It's not even trashing the music but mostly the man himself. You all took a pretty strong position against Jim James, and it's fine to have that opinion, but don't be surprised when folks in town have an equally strong reaction. He's held above the rest because he and the other members of MMJ have worked fucking hard to get there. For a blog that champions local music and is one of the positive forces out there, it is baffling that you all wouldn't at least respect the guy.

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  19. I hesitate to say this blog is "throwing a fit" over the bitter responses to this review. While I do believe it's fair for Jim's fans to criticize this post--one with which I myself disagree on several points--many (though granted, not all) of the responses have moved this discussion towards slamming the reviewer (who neither lives in nor is from Louisville) or the blog (which is also not based in Louisville), taking angry reactionist tones and calling the review itself "absurd" instead of solely addressing its arguments, which alone should compose the debate.

    Disagree with the conclusions? Then say so, and offer a counterargument with supporting opinions (as some of you did). I know for a fact this blog has always encouraged thoughtful debate, as any good blog does, and should. And of course the writer "expected" some kind of backlash--anyone with any knowledge of Jim James' origins, fanbase, and the extent of WLFY's Louisville readership would hopefully have seen this coming. But again, this whole debate loses merit when one side attacks the other personally, instead of attacking their arguments. Many of you may respond to that point with "You say focus on the argument, but he attacked the artist in his review!" because you will confuse harsh criticism with personal attacks. Remember, it was Jim who decided to be the album's figurehead, so it's only fair for critics of the album to evaluate his influences alone--influences that are not only external, but also (and perhaps largely) internal. The critic here references his view of Jim's personal and professional trajectory because this album is considered a continuation of Jim's career--including his years with MMJ--rather than a summation of it.

    But I think there's an even bigger issue at play here, evident specifically in Beth's comment: Equating negative criticism to "disrespect." It seems some of us are so emotionally attached to an artist (or his/her art) that we struggle to have a civil, intelligent debate about the quality of the artist's work, without feeling personally offended on their behalf.

    I know I've often struggled with this, and I'm not even a music blogger. The most devoted music fans feel a strong, almost visceral connection to their favorite art/artists, so it follows that our response to negative opinions about it can be equally sensory. However, no one ever got better at anything by having people heap nothing but praise upon them--that's encouragement, not criticism. At this point in his career, Jim doesn't need MORE people telling him he's great, nor does he need an army of admirers/fans to "get his back" when one critic is not a fan of his latest work. Moreover, it is both a personal and a professional courtesy for a music journalist to call an artist out for falling short of expectations. And while we can debate whether Jim did indeed fall short with this album, I think everyone including the reviewer would agree that it's a testament to Jim's past success and ability as an artist and frontman of MMJ that these expectations (and numerous reviews of his work) exist at all.

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  20. http://youtu.be/x8E5a1VUorY

    I guess, in a way, we're all wearing masks. Sometimes literally.

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  21. I love Jim James and I love living in Louisville, but this album's packaging smells weird and when I listen to it I feel like my ears have a Urinary Tract Infection. But seriously, I mean that in the nicest way. I love Jim James and living in Louisville.

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  22. Steve -- I am completely guilty of a visceral and admittedly inappropriate reaction to this review -- me being the author of the 'tits' comment above. Sorry, guys. I was a bit hungover, very bored, and feeling just a tad feisty (and had been stewing over this review since it was published).

    I was surprised, however, at the also visceral reaction from the hosts. Guys of "We Listen for You:" you're writing a well-respected, intelligent, and widely-read (and gaining) music blog. I still have my opinions about this specific piece but you're writing in the public sphere as semi-public figures and you shouldn't get so sniffy. Haters always gonna hate.

    So, yes. "Visceral reactions were had by many!"

    My overall point is that, yes, Jim James obviously has to live in a world where he gets cut down by critics every so often, but so too do you who write this blog. I guess I thought that y'all would be comfortable enough to snort / chuckle / eye roll at my comment instead of adding fuel to the fire.

    For the record, I know that it was unfair to accuse you of trolling for traffic. I think 'hipster street cred' might be more accurate. Likely subconscious. Dudes, I am someone who will grudgingly admit that I find GREAT pleasure in naysaying things that are getting seemingly universal hype (and it was the recognition of this trait that I thought I recognized in your review). Avatar, that dumb book 'Three Cups of Tea,' etc., Lonerism... Anyway. Keep on writing and ignore over-the-top comments from people like me!

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  23. the typical local bias. MMJ hasn't put out a good record in a long time. Anything coming out of ATO records, in my opinion, sucks really bad.

    But then again, I understand a local bias. There are people in Chicago that really like "Wilco (the album)". All because of the that God Damned local bias.

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  24. I don't really understand reviewing records today. With all the free streaming on the interwebs, listen to the record yourself, make your own decisions. If you like it, buy it. Simple.

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  25. Phish summer tour. All other bands should really just quit

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  26. I stumbled upon Jim James performing on TV last night and after 2 minutes of tortuous listening I thought to myself, "how can anybody be this self absorbed and pompous when they are offering up such tripe as music?". I honestly couldn't believe that anybody could actually like it. But people do. I guess "to each his own", but please, make sure your "own" is far far away from me.

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  27. Love Jim James' (Olliges, Jr.) music in every form - MMJ, Monsters Of Folk, The New Basement Tapes along with his solo material. That being said, Mr. Olliges needs a serious application of humility, his arrogance has been turning me off in many of the interviews he has done the past few years. This excerpt from 'Rolling Stone' magazine article "Monsters of Folk's All-Star Experiment" pretty much sums up the part of his act I wish he would leave behind:

    "We're tired of Trav­eling Wilburys comparisons," says James, gathered with his bandmates on the beach in Santa Monica. He asks the oth­ers how they feel about Blind Faith, and Oberst, one of rock's most gifted young songwrit­ers, reveals he doesn't know much about the Eric Clapton-Steve Winwood group. "They did 'Can't Find My Way Home,' which is probably the only good song Eric Clapton ever did," James says, before cracking up his bandmates with a dirty ver­sion of Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight": "I slide on your pant­ies and slip on your tights/And I say, 'Darling, don't I look won­derful tonight?'"

    Please try a dish of humility, Jim. The arrogance is overwhelming you and seems to be influencing your art.

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