Jim James, I think it’s safe to say, is about fu**ing done. In fact sometimes I look at artists in general and I can tell — they’re just going through the motions, the inspirations have run dry.
Well, credit James with rather than murdering the silence with one more perfunctory hippie-pleasing MMJ album, actually showing us the shape of his heart — some of his favorite music of others’. Blessed with an uncanny and celestial voice, James will always be a draw to the musical world even if he’s just singing out of the phone book, but seeing as how his band hasn’t put out an album in nearly three years and he starts his covers session with Beach Boys’ “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” the ongoing artistic output here at hand hardly seems like a CELEBRATION, or a cause for celebration, as it were.
In fact, James’ take on “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” is downright bizarre — it doesn’t follow the chord progression of the Brian Wilson version, veering rather into an even tenser, vaguely jazzier and more damaged type of thing, leaning on strings, trumpet and heavy bass reverb (none of which existed ever as a “pet sound” to then be sampled then, apparently), to set the ambience. This complexity and musicological modulation might be partly a ditch digging to ensure, granted, some variation from Tribute to 2’s 2009 prequel, which, upon listen, certainly exudes a tiresome sparsity of instrumentation and inspiration (being all Beatles covers).
The plurality of source material helps Tribute to 2 and also lends itself to the eclectic genre cluster and instrumentation — “Midnight, the Stars and You” is a jaunty ragtime number with James on piano, not even entering vocally until after the first minute, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” is a roaring success with relentless lap steel and maybe even some authentic Southern drawl on the singer’s part. “Crying in the Chapel” is a delicate ballad whose melody sparked memories of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” in my mind, but which moves along with enough purpose not to bore you, and on “Funny How Time Slips away” James bares it all and allows that robust voice to carry the weight, needing only some delicate guitar plucking in the background.
One of my favorite albums of two years ago this time of year was Bob Dylan’s Shadows in the Night, which is composed of all Frank Sinatra covers. The funny thing is that I’m not even a Frank Sinatra fan. Sometimes this stuff just works as good background music but what Tribute to 2 won’t do, despite a couple mainstream selections, is really transcend your pop listening satisfaction level — these songs are meant to confuse, to imbue a sense of the complex disaffection that the My Morning Jacket singer is feeling in these “times,” and of course, show off his awesome voice, which is often a good thing.