“Wasting all your time on drama, could be solving real crime, waste away your mind too…”
-My Morning Jacket, from “Highly Suspicious”
Louisville Kentucky’s My Morning Jacket made their name sounding something like trippy alt-country with their first album, The Tennessee Fire in 1999. For two more albums, they rode a wave of reverb into cult status, singing quirky lyrics and throwing in a musical surprise or two with every album. By album three, It Still Moves, the sound began to shift a bit and all that reverb took a couple steps back, setting fans up for the sucker punch that was Z, their fourth release. Owing more to Prince in some of those songs than to Wilco, Z took many of their fans by surprise with such a sea change in sound, so 2008’s Evil Urges had plenty of expectations, and it lives up to them, blending that original sound with the new beats of Z, creating something wholly original. Coming near the end of the album is what I consider MMJ’s masterpiece to date, “Smokin’ From Shootin'”.
Here stands a classic example of a build. Starting with only what sounds like a synthesized drum beat, the bass comes in next with some whining steel guitar soon after to back Jim James on verse 1. By verse 2, just a quiet tap on a cymbal adds to what was there in verse 1. By the first chorus we get some more drums added to the mix. It’s not a big change, but just perceptible. After chorus two, the build is finally at full boil. Thunderous drums, pounding piano, and James’ controlled wail sound like a modern version of Phil Spector’s wall of sound. What balls up that fist even tighter though is how it can sneak up on you. In most Spector tunes, the humming soundwall was in full glory from the first note. The way that MMJ builds up this masterpiece though, it can surprise you like a frog in boiling pot, thinking he’s getting a warm bath. The burner gets turned up to ten right about the time that James sings that last “Ohhh” with a distorted lead Gibson (probably James’ favorite Flying V). Then the band pounds its uppercut home with the crescendo backing “Distance coming and goin’ come on, what are you waiting for?” By that point, if you weren’t paying attention before, you certainly are now, perhaps turning down the volume a bit, or else cranking it up to catch the end of the ride. One fact becomes inevitable though. If you have functioning ears and a soul, you ARE air-drumming to that emphatic “do do do do BOOM do do do do BOOM” (sorry to use such technical terms J)
Like a lot of rock songs, this one keeps its theme close to the vest, and open to interpretation. A look at its entry on songmeanings.net shows opinions that vary from a breakup to the voice of God. Upon close inspection though, I think the main idea stands out clearly. The song uses quite a few questions, so throughout, it takes on an exhorting tone. Verse 1 plants that idea early, almost sounding like a scolding, but in a reversal of the usual, the woman in question doesn’t want to be treated like an adult, instead insisting she’s “just a kid”. The chorus then questions her unfounded fear. In that mentoring tone again, the questions for once turn on the narrator, asking if we see his smoking guns, “smoking from shooting at nothing real”. I would translate this as “look, I’ve been where you are, afraid for no reason, jumping at the slightest noise”. This idea is backed up in the next line “do you live your life on the run, losing out on lovin’ asking for nothin’, running from something isn’t there.”
Showing up at spot 12 in a 14 track album, “SFS” seems to be almost buried on Evil Urges. In my experience though, this only serves to make the song even more of a “sleeper”. In fact, you might even skip over it a couple times without hearing that final crescendo (see Overlooked Hooks volume 14 for a similar dichotomy between a song’s beginning movement versus its end). Only three years old, sufficient time has yet to pass to place it in the annals of musical history, but with today’s vast world of music, it’s easy to see this track being forgotten over time, rather than being recognized as the classic that it is.