“Here I stand / goin’ through the motions with the mic in my hand,” so begins the lead-off track, ‘Just a Fool’ from the new aptly-titled Jim James album, ‘Uniform Distortion.’ Like many these days, James feels he’s going through the motions by spending too much time on his phone / online / “on the grid” – a feeling that is drawing more and more of us back to the concept of vinyl, physical books, and magazines. This feeling is part of what led James to a thrift shop where he happened upon a copy of The Whole Earth Catalogue.
Published between 1968 and 1972 by Steward Brand, it was a magazine of the counterculture that doubled as a product catalogue. Flipping through, James discovered a distorted photo of “The Illuminated Man” by Duane Michals. Moved by the image, James requested permission to use it as the cover of ‘Distortion.’ Initially rejected, he sent a personal email to the artist, saying in part, “there was a reason your art spoke to me… and I really think it would speak to others who would see it exploding out at them illuminating from the record store shelf or the glow of their phone or computer screen and feel its organic mind-blowing distortion connect with this new music.”
The music does indeed seem to “explode out” at the listener from the opening guitar lick of the aforementioned ‘Just a Fool’ and throughout the album’s 40-minute running time. Released just over six months after 2017’s ‘Tribute to 2,’ ‘Distortion’ finds James reveling in ‘60s garage-rock (‘Better Late Than Never’), Quadrophenia-era Who by way of T. Rex glam (‘You Get to Rome’); even channeling Buddy Holly through an indie-rock filter (‘Over and Over’). James is definitely enjoying these adventures in lo-fi, even to the point of cracking himself up during parts of ‘You Get to Rome,’ the beautiful, Nilsson/Lennon-esque ‘Throwback,’ and the relentless, resilient ‘Yes to Everything.’ Elsewhere, ‘No Secrets’ pays tribute to both the lumbering beauty of Neil Young with Crazy Horse, and Ryan Adams’s more recent nocturnal ‘80s fetishes, such as his self-titled album from 2014.
‘Distortion’ closes with James once again finding inspiration from Bob Dylan, just as he did more directly in Todd Haynes’s Dylan film ‘I’m Not There’ and with The New Basement Tapes. This time it’s ‘Planet Waves’-era Dylan on the gospel of ‘Too Good to Be True.’ James’s phrasing – coupled with spacious, minimal guitar, organ, and wordless choir – closes the album gorgeously with celestial sounds of spiritual longing.
‘Uniform Distortion’ may not inspire anyone to go so far as “off the grid,” but its focus on classic sounds (though filtered very much through the present), direct, familiar melodies, and overall sense of fun may just find fans of Jim James and My Morning Jacket hoping he goes thrift store shopping more often.