Being that they're from the South — Louisville, Kentucky, to be exact — and given that they're currently one of a handful of bands saddled with the "Southern rock" handle made famous by Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band, My Morning Jacket couldn't have picked a worse way to break into the movie biz.
"We're all in Cameron Crowe's new film, 'Elizabethtown,' " MMJ frontman Jim James laughed (see "Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst Sign On For Cameron Crowe's 'Elizabethtown"). "We play a rock band called Ruckus. And the one scene where we're actually performing as the band, we're playing 'Freebird.' "
So not only are they introduced to the moviegoing masses as a fictitious longhaired Kentucky rock act, but they're performing perhaps the most famous (and most maligned) song by perhaps the most famous (and most maligned) Southern rock act of all time in a movie about the eccentricities of life in a small Southern town. Director Crowe might've stuck the band in matching overalls and corncob pipes while he was at it.
But My Morning Jacket don't seem to care. They've been dealing with the whole Southern rock thing ever since they emerged from the barn behind (former) guitarist Johnny Quaid's grandmother's house with 1999's The Tennessee Fire and their breakthrough album, 2001's At Dawn (see "My Morning Jacket: What Everyone Will Be Wearing").
"There's not a whole lot we can do about it. I mean, we are from the South. And people kind of look at us a bit weird, but we fit where we make ourselves fit," James said. "I can understand it a lot more with our older albums, but with our new one, we made an effort to move a bit beyond all that."
That new album, Z (out October 4), is a markedly different effort for the band. For one, the marathon jam sessions that made up the last album, 2003's It Still Moves, have been replaced with shorter, tighter, more vicious pop numbers. Also gone is MMJ's penchant for reverb, which was on full display the last time around, thanks to the band's custom-built echo chamber (actually just an old silo). Most shocking of all, though, is James' evolution as a vocalist.
On previous efforts, he'd been dismissed as nothing more than a warbling Neil Young impersonator, but on Z his voice is given room to expand and contract. And the results — be it his crystal-clear falsetto on "Dondante" or his punchy drawl on "What a Wonderful Man" — are shocking.
"The last record was all long songs, with like 8,000 different things going on, and on the new one we wanted to cut things back and let each element kind of grow," James said. "This time it was a lot less 'OK, on the count of three, everyone start jamming!' "
Some of the songs on Z will also appear in "Elizabethtown," Crowe's look at love and family set against the backdrop of the real-life Kentucky town of the same name. Due in theaters October 14, it stars Orlando Bloom as a failed designer who returns to the small town for his father's funeral, along the way falling in love with Claire, a free-spirited flight attendant played by Kirsten Dunst. Like all of Crowe's films, it plays out like a visual mixtape, a testament to the writer/director's love for all things musical (see "Cameron Crowe: Hometown Hero").
"Cameron saw us perform at the Troubadour [in West Hollywood] about three years ago and came backstage and introduced himself and talked to us about the story of 'Elizabethtown,' about his travels back to Kentucky and the nostalgia he felt there," James said. "And he wanted to talk to us about what life was like in Louisville and what our families were like. And he's been talking to us for the past three years about music and the movie and life."
Other artists appearing on the "Elizabethtown" soundtrack include Ryan Adams, Elton John and Tom Petty. According to RCA Records, the track list is still being finalized — though they'd better hurry up, since it's due in stores on September 13. And if the film and soundtrack do forever frame My Morning Jacket as nothing more than Southern-rock pretenders, well, James is OK with that. After all, he can always fall back on a career as the guitarist for Ruckus.
"Ruckus already performed once. At the after party for the movie," James laughed. "Maybe we could take that act on the road. Open up for some jam bands. Who knows? Ruckus only really knows two songs and one of them is 'Freebird.' "
Check out everything we've got on "Elizabethtown."