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My Morning Jacket weathers it

Times Staff Writer

There is something that moves under My Morning Jacket’s music -- and it is not just the reverb that singer Jim James has been accused of abusing, though the reverb can draw it out. It’s the holy spirit of a great rock ‘n’ roll band, a tattered, strutting, insatiable relative to the Holy Spirit of Christianity.

The Louisville, Ky., quintet perform rock ‘n’ roll in its most idealistic, preternatural state: fiery torch guitar, submerged reggae, battered country soliloquies, even a little ‘80s-inspired paranoia.

Their musical sermons, captured on the 2006 double live CD “Okonokos,” have earned them a reputation as one of the best live bands touring today. It’s a mantle that’s made the group one of the most-buzzed-about acts on tomorrow night’s bill at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

“I believe in the spirit, the force or whatever you want to call it, the essence of life and the power of love,” James said by phone from his temporary home in New York, where he is subletting an apartment. “Watching people walk by in Central Park, it reminds me that everyone’s on the same quests . . . to find happiness and love.”

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My Morning Jacket’s upcoming album, “Evil Urges,” due out June 10, is its biggest, most soulful stab at understanding these quests yet.

“The title chased me down for a while,” James, the band’s sole songwriter, said. “It’s about the inner dialogue that people act on, or they don’t act on and repress. Since the dawn of organized religion, people have hated each other and judged each other.

“I don’t like to deal in specifics too much,” he continues, “but there are different things that religion will condemn; there are a million examples, that are just a part of our humanity.”

My Morning Jacket kick-started in 1999 with “The Tennessee Fire,” earning praise for its beatific Americana, then gained a bigger audience with its next two albums, “At Dawn” in 2001 and “It Still Moves” in 2003, the latter its first on major label ATO.

The outfit, named for the monogram on a garment James found in the ashes of a fire, seemed poised for ordinary success, a life of mid-sized-venue tours and lovely, if somewhat uneven, albums.

But in 2005, My Morning Jacket found itself heading in a radically different direction, recording its fourth studio album, “Z,” in upstate New York with producer John Leckie. Working closely with the band, Leckie pushed the atmosphere into more mystical, strange territory that was confounding and occasionally inaccessible even for the group’s core following.

For the band, “Z” stands as a reflection of a tumultuous emotional state. “The weather around that album was dark and kind of uneasy,” drummer Patrick Hallahan said by phone from his home in Louisville, Ky.

James’ friend since childhood, Hallahan joined the band after drummer Chris Guetig left in 2002. Before the recording of “Z” in 2004, guitarist Johnny Quaid and keyboardist Danny Cash made amicable but sudden departures and were replaced by Carl Broemel and Bo Koster, respectively.

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“There was so much change going on,” Hallahan said. “There were people leaving and people joining the circle. It was awkward and a little freaky, but it was also liberating. We thought, ‘Let’s take ourselves out of our element.’ ”

The new album builds on the work of “Z,” which, according to “Evil Urges” producer Joe Chiccarelli, was by design.

“I was a big fan of ‘Z,’ ” Chiccarelli said. “ ‘Evil Urges’ retains that depth and mystery, but it’s more immediate and close to their live sound. These are Jim’s most open, honest, accessible and groove-oriented songs.”

Chiccarelli found that the most effective way to bring out the best in James’ songs was to simply let the democratic spirit of the band work in the studio.

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“Sometimes you see in a band that there’s one guy who’s bitter or just passing through, but with My Morning Jacket, they are all incredibly passionate about it. Everyone contributes and Jim is very open to different ideas.”

Recorded in the bustle of Midtown Manhattan at Avatar Studios, “Evil Urges” reconciles several different genres, most predominantly rock’s righteous stomp and the weary tranquillity of soul. James’ lyrics are lonely, sometimes introspective but more demonstrative than ever.

In “I’m Amazed,” he lists a set of wonders of all stripes, including “I’m amazed at the quiet ocean . . . I’m amazed at what the people saying / I’m amazed by a divided nation.”

No matter how far “Evil Urges” wanders in its own quests, it always returns to rock ‘n’ roll mecca: James’ outsized pipes, vamping and crooning and sometimes giggling maniacally, and the band’s fierce mettle -- reminiscent of the Who or Led Zeppelin with indie rock’s beta-male sensitivity. It also draws a straight line between James’ ideas about music and faith.

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“To hear people like Sam Cooke singing about God and you can tell he believes it, that’s a magical thing,” James said. “I’ve always been fascinated by how people can subscribe to one faith. I know it has a lot to do with where people are from and how they were brought up, but I’ve never really been able to believe in any one thing, so I question it all.”

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margaret.wappler@latimes.com


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