Making the past progressive

My Morning Jacket displays an alphabetic knowledge of rock and adds to it with ‘Z’

Frederic Hanson

Retro is very now-tro. People, especially musicians, appropriate cultural decades left and right. Old-time folk, 1980s new wave, ’60s garage stomp: In the past five years, music has rehashed the past 30. Sometimes it works out great – the black lung neo-blues of The White Stripes or the dance-pop apathy of Gwen Stefani, for instance. Sometimes it gets as nasty as The Hives.

My Morning Jacket is none of the above. They are somewhere in the middle.

On “Z,” their follow-up to 2003’s “It Still Moves,” the band proves itself to be adept at rehashing the past in a completely original way – just not as ingeniously as, say, Jack White.

Possibly inspired by the departure of founding members Johnny Quaid and Danny Cash, Jim James – songwriter and singer for the Louisville five-piece – has created some terribly beautiful moments on this album.

When successfully walking the fine line between pop simplicity and creative depth, perfected by the acts of yesteryear, James is unparalleled. He knows it. On “Wordless Chorus,” the opening cut from the album, he softly proclaims, “We are the innovators, they are the imitators. Come on, hey don’t you know how we started, we forgot about love but weren’t brokenhearted.” It seems profoundly effortless.

Throughout, the spiritualized frontman swoons with the Space Age bewilderment of Thom Yorke soaked in bourbon. And like a robot pieced together from Radiohead’s brain and Oasis’ bravado, the band executes music creatively, despite its obvious embrace of decades of rock ‘n’ roll.

“Gideon” sounds like an acid-spiked baptismal affirmation with Bono presiding while “What a Wonderful Man,” “Anytime” and “Lay Low” stick to a contemporary yet somewhat typical Southern rock orthodoxy: loud guitars, monster stomp and plenty of keyboards. They could all be destined for anthemic status.

The album is at its most interesting, however, when it is recalling an ethereal, futuristic Brit-rock Americana. On tracks like “It Beats 4 U” – an “OK Computer” flavored ballad – and “Into the Woods,” James’ uncanny ability to innovate and simultaneously innervate shines like the blue Kentucky moon.

But even pristine pop-rock wisdom can get sidetracked. The faux-dub of “Off the Record,” the bluegrass acoustics of “Knot Comes Loose,” and operatic vocals of “Dondante” try a little too hard. While engaging, they fall short of the other seven songs.

In that respect, “Z” is like most albums from good bands that, with time, are going to become great – influenced, but not copies, with a lot of spectacular songs and a little filler for good measure.