When I heard the news that Jim James was releasing a solo album, I had two thoughts almost simultaneously: "Oh, cool! I like him!" and "Wait... why?". As the chief singer/songwriter of My Morning Jacket, most of the songs' writing credits list only Jim James. Out of the band's past 3 studio albums (Z, EVIL URGES, and CIRCUITAL), there's only two songs that aren't written solely by James ("Off the Record" and "Evil Urges" which are both cowritten with other band members). So, at some level, I was curious why James would feel the need to create a solo record: most of My Morning Jacket seems to be effectively a solo effort. But hey, it's not unusual for this kind of thing to happen -- maybe James wanted a sound that he didn't feel he could achieve with a full band in the studio?
While My Morning Jacket has its roots in a bluesy, independent version of southern rock, you can always expect them to try something new. Additionally, the band always sounds huge, with the exception of a few purposefully scaled-down tracks like "Dondante". Jim James' solo record, REGIONS OF LIGHT AND SOUND OF GOD, feels stripped back. It's not as big a record as most My Morning Jacket efforts; there's no horn section, no children's choirs, no crunchy guitar riffs.
REGIONS OF LIGHT opens with the song that everyone has been talking about: "State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U)". It starts the album off with considerable promise -- the song is essentially a statement of purpose. The song is letting the listeners know right off the bat what kind of album this is going to be. The song relies on James' vocals and a slight piano riff for the first two minutes. "State of the Art" slowly blossoms with bass and guitar into a groove-heavy jam. "A New Life" has a nice, bouncy melody, and it should appeal more to fans of the Avett Brothers more so than fans of My Morning Jacket. "All is Forgiven" marks what might be the biggest detour of the album; the Eastern-influence track surrounds James voice in a foggy, creepy way. For better or worse, the same tone (is it a synthesizer) is used in the next track, "God's to Deliver," and instead of feeling as if the songs are flowing together, it feels like the first is dragging on. The album doesn't end in a bang, but it just kind of finally stops. There's no real sense of ending hear that has characterized other songs that James has used to end tracks ("Dondante", "One in the Same", or "Touch Me... Part 2").
I've always felt as if Jim James was some kind of musical chameleon. His band seems to just spit out songs that dabble in reggae, metal, pop, gospel -- it's all over the place. REGIONS OF LIGHT is a bit more reigned in; it's not quite as diverse or weird as previous albums. I don't necessarily consider this a detractor from the album, but fans should know what they're getting into. Most of the songs here are mid-tempo, mid-volume, middle-of-the-road jams. There's no shifting dynamics, no surprising transitions.
All of the songs here are good. They all work; they all have good melodies. Unfortunately, for me, the album never quite cohered into one purposeful album. After a few songs, the REGIONS OF LIGHT feels like one mid-tempo song after the other, without too much to distinguish them. Perhaps I'm spoiled by My Morning Jacket's sense of diversity, but it seems that Jim James is at his best when he is striking out of his comfort zone. REGIONS OF LIGHT though, feels more like James has found his comfort-zone musically and hidden well inside it. This isn't a bad album, but it's one that I would recommend splitting into individual tracks for later consumption. If you're new to the Jim James discography, I'd suggest starting with his work in My Morning Jacket (the "Z" album maybe). However, if you love My Morning Jacket, this solo outing should tide you over until the next Jim James project.
Tracks to sample/download: "State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U)", "A New Life", and "Of the Mother Again"