Hot Routes: Super Hot Edition

1 Feb

The Super Bowl

By this point, virtually all of the possible Super Bowl story lines have been developed, examined, and mirthlessly driven into the ground by the army of media correspondents assigned to the game.  So we’ll keep the game analysis short and get right to the more important, and likely more enjoyable, part of Super Bowl week at Dan Swanky’s – the music.

 

 

Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers

The Pick:  Ravens (+3.5)

On paper, the 49ers look like the better team, and they look like they could be capable of winning this game by at least a touchdown.  The problem for San Francisco is that this postseason for the Ravens has been all about factors that aren’t easily reflected on paper.  Baltimore has bought in completely to every motivational opportunity thrown their way – the retirement of emotional leader Ray Lewis, rampant doubts about the reliability of Joe Flacco, internal upheaval amongst the coaching staff, oddsmakers making them huge underdogs over the last two games – and they now seem scarily calm in the run-up before the Big Game.  Nothing can faze them, and I feel much more confident backing their experience than I do a rookie QB and a team filled with first-time Super Bowl competitors.

The Album:  Regions of Light and Sound of God by Jim James

This year’s Super Bowl is going down in New Orleans, and for somewhat understandable reasons, I’ve always associated the Big Easy with rocker/soul man/weirdo savant/life guru Jim James.  The most obvious reasons for the connection between the two have been elucidated by James himself – he’s publicly professed a love for the deep musical legacies of New Orleans, and elements of the city’s particular flavors of jazz, funk, and soul can be heard both in My Morning Jacket (James’ main band) and his solo outings.

Beyond that, there’s also a sense of eerie and utterly compelling mysticism hovering within my impression of both the city and the musician.  James’ music has the ability to conjure up images of spooky, humid and swampy lands where strangely wondrous things are happening in the shadows; those descriptors could certainly underlie a heavily romanticized version of New Orleans that may or may not still exist.

James new solo album, Regions of Light and Sound of God, is an excellent introduction to his unique and atmospheric blend of the aforementioned jazz, funk, and soul touches.  Whereas My Morning Jacket often derives a lot of its power from James’ virtuosic electric guitar lines, Regions finds focal points with swelling strings, strutting bass lines, and smoky brass notes.  The latter comes primarily in the form of a saxophone that appears several times throughout the record, and which sounds steeped in the kind of spooky, New Orleans mysticism mentioned previously.  A Voodoo Sax, if you will.

Jim James and his musical leanings are filled with seemingly contradictory themes, and Regions reflects that.  As a white, shaggy-haired frontman of a rock band, James wouldn’t be expected to be taking musical cues from the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Al Green.  But there he is all over Regions, finding the sweet spots between delicate hymns of praise and funky sexual grooves that those soul legends pioneered.  James knows how to mix a worshipful respect of the divine with a deep-felt need to get down, and he does it with a comfortableness few other artists today have.

There is a darkness in the heart of rock and roll, and many of the great artists over time have been able to ride the dark edge of the music that has its roots all the way back in the swampy, Crossroads-bred blues of Robert Johnson.  Sometimes, it seems, an artist needs to dance with the devil a little bit to get some true feeling in their work.  Jim James seems to know this better than anyone, and his music reaches another level because of it.  In the slow-burning opener “State of the Art,” he sings ‘I know you need the dark / Just as much as the Sun’;  it’s a point that’s driven home through the howls and spectral falsettos he unleashes throughout the album from that point on.

At the conclusion of the record, it is due to the strength and assuredness of James’ artistic vision that the listener has a clear-eyed idea of what the artist is really about at this point in time.  As can be seen with the album title, James is an openly spiritual person – he’s not aligned with a dogmatic religion like Christianity, but he has a deep sense and respect for the divine and for how it relates to everyday life.  This laid-back spiritualism is most definitely not a new thing in the music world, but the great thing about James and his music is that he cuts his sensitive positivity with an understanding and appreciation for the dark and haunted parts of the world.  He believes and celebrates in the beauty of the world around him, and he doesn’t discriminate between the peaceful and the occasionally dangerous.

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