Those suspicious of pretention would do well to disregard the title of this debut solo album by Jim James and feel instead the southern orchestral funk of its groove. It'll be worth it.
James remains the leader of My Morning Jacket, arguably one of the more expansive Americana acts of the past decade, and this record shares DNA with the last Jacket offering, while shimmying into more velvety, penumbral territory. Like its close cousin, Matthew E White's Big Inner, released a fortnight ago, ROLASOG finds a southern indie long-hair wrestling with matters temporal and spiritual, as basslines guide the way and Dr Martin Luther King Jr quotes punctuate the quest.
James first recorded his thousand-yard vocals in a grain silo for MMJ's debut, The Tennessee Fire, in 1999. He's a Kentuckian au fait with hurricane Sandy benefits and Woody Guthrie tribute albums, whose last album with MMJ, Circuital, was Rolling Stone's 11th best album of 2011. James has recorded under the cod-Hispanic moniker Yim Yames, but this is his solo debut proper, pitched somewhere between cosmic soul and oldies station via some impressive 80s pop feints. He plays everything on it except the drums and strings.
It helps to know that James became obsessed with an extraordinary 1929 work by a woodcut-maker called Lynd Ward that many have hailed as the first graphic novel. Gods' Man tells of an impoverished artist given a magic brush by a mysterious stranger. Riches and fame follow, but trouble too, and heartbreak; the parallel with the cannon-fodder careers of bands who sign, tour and get spat out the other end isn't hard to infer, although it's hardly where MMJ find themselves. Still, Ward struck a chord.
"I followed all the wrong dreams," James howls on All is Forgiven, an eastern-tinged jazz reverie. All strings and swoons, Actress takes on the dance between art and artifice. "I believe in the concept of you," James croons tenderly.
Although the graphic novel's themes are never far away, ROLASOG is also concerned with love (romantic and spiritual) and the parlous state of things. It may not be the most original polemic, but James isn't impressed with hi-tech solutions to human problems on State of the Art (AEIOU), the album's hypnotic opening track. Based around a piano riff (and the sound of the wind and, at a guess, a boiling kettle), James layers instruments on one by one, gathering drama (and funk) as it builds. "I mean it/ The power's going out!" James warns at its climax.
Recent My Morning Jacket albums have displayed a wide variety of influences, cutting loose from the gently psychedelic country jam band tag that initially served them so well. But this is the first time Jim James has sounded so much like Prefab Sprout's Paddy McAloon (no bad thing). "How could I have known?" he mourns on the spacious swoop of Know Til Now, recalling the vaulting art-pop of the 80s. Later, his intense, multitracked voice comes closer to the falsetto of John Lennon on God's Love to Deliver, the closing track. Even better is Of the Mother Again, a hazy, almost Beatlesy cut. Light but deep, it helps this shimmering solo effort knock the last three MMJ albums into a cocked hat.