Regions of Light and Sound of God
Louisville native Jim James has made a name for himself by heading one of the best bands going today in chameleon Southern rockers My Morning Jacket, but that isn’t so say that’s all James has done. James has made himself known throughout the musical landscape, from singing and playing on records for Bright Eyes, Dr. Dog, Laura Veirs, and Preservation Jazz Hall Band, shacking up in supergroups with Conor Oberst and M. Ward for Monsters of Folk and Jay Farrar and others for a Woodie Guthrie project known as New Multitudes, and notoriously showing up as a guest seemingly everywhere, playing with a diverse range of acts from Erykah Badu to the late great Levon Helm. Not only has James made an imprint in music, but he has also made notable appearances in Elizabethtown and I’m Not There. So it’s a bit surprising that it has taken him this long to release a proper full-length solo album, but the wait is over with Regions of Light and Sound of God. The results are mostly positive, with James doing a very different type of record than he is known for with My Morning Jacket; a sweet, restrained, and spiritual 40 minutes of music that doesn’t hit you over the head, but gently ships you off to outer space.
The story behind Regions of Light and Sound of God has already become a bit of folklore, with the album being inspired by a period of time following a freak stage accident James suffered. James ended up in the hospital and was handed a copy of Lynd Ward’s 1929 wordless novel-in-woodcuts, God’s Man. God’s Man is about a young man who seeks redemption while struggling with personal demons, and then figures things out to only have death sneak up on him. Through the book and this time, James reconciled these weighty themes of love, mercy, suffering, art, and death in his life and has now used Regions of Light and Sound of God as a sort of pronounced meditation on these subjects. Often when artists tackle such themes they get a little ambiguous and messy, but for the most part, James shows a surprising amount o restraint to make a quiet and searching album that is still signature quirky James.
In terms of music, James plays every instrument on the record beside some of the orchestral arrangements, and covers a wide array of music genres but stays within a unified record sound. “A.E.I.O.U. (State of the Art)” builds around a serene jazz piano line and the stillness of James’ voice before slowly picking up steam to form one of Regions’ best tracks. The spacey shuffle of “Know Till Now” sounds like a disco taking place only in James’ mind or on a rocketship to the moon, but still sounds romantic even if it’s a bit dazed out. “Dear One” follows a pattern of My Morning Jacket tracks “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Part 1” and “Day Is Coming”: elementary, hypnotic pop songs that build off one mid-tempo yet entrancing melody. Second single “A New Life” is as good as Regions gets, with James doing his best hiccupy Buddy Holly impression singing a sweet and innocent love song about starting anew. It’s a not-so-distant cousin to classic love song Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”, and sounds instantly just as classic.
Not only are all the lyrics spiritual in nature, but the music itself lays steeped in sounds from the otherside. One of James’ biggest musical heroes is my favorite Beatle, George Harrison (James even has a Harrison tribute EP called Tribute To), who was also famous for spiritually searching music, pulling influence from Ravi Shankar and Hindustani classical music, gospel music, and folk spirituals. James does much the same here, pulling New Age sounds for “Of The Mother Again”, Middle-Eastern sounds on “All Is Forgiven”, soul and gospel on “Actress”, and airy meditative folk on “God’s Love To Deliver”. While across the board spiritually, the album doesn’t feel jumbled or messy but rather wholly cathartic.
Probably my biggest issue with Regions of Light and Sound of God is not the concept or overall sound of the record, but rather the songs themselves. Every My Morning Jacket record usually delivers at least 3-4 gripping and instantly epic songs that I will play for years, and outside “A New Life” and maybe “A.E.I.O.U. (State of the Art)”, the songs are pleasant and moving but not stuff I feel like continually retreating back to. James is usually not one for restraint, and he uses it here which I think helped with dealing with huge themes, but I think it also removed some of his oddball personality which is one of the most endearing features to James’ music.
Regions of Light and Sound of God is definitely worth a listen, but isn’t guaranteed to warrant repeated listens the way much of James’ other work does.
Can’t Miss: “A.E.I.O.U. (State of the Art)”, “A New Life”, “Know Till Now”
Can’t Hit: “Exploding”, “Actress”