There is more than a little to be said for looking back in order to clear the path while moving forward. Throughout his various solo endeavors, Jim James has been all over the musical map, from stripped-down acoustic songs (the first of two George Harrison tribute EPs) to electronically drenched spiritual songs (Regions of Light and Sound of God) to subdued experimental philosophical examinations (Eternally Even). Uniform Distortion finds James delving into the realms of lo-fi indie rock and homages to some of his classic rock heroes. Accompanied only by a rhythm section and backing vocalists, James revels in crunchy guitar worship in (mostly) upbeat, questioning songs. The cover offers a distorted reproduction of "The Illuminated Man" by Duane Michals, which first appeared in The Whole Earth Catalog. It moved James to want to use it. But Michals initially refused. James wrote him: "...when I saw it on the page there it spoke to me so deeply of how my head feels like it is exploding with the amount of information we are forced to consume on a daily basis and how that information is so DISTORTED there is almost no longer any tangible truth...More and more of us are feeling lost and looking for new ways out of this distortion and back to the truth...finding hope in each other and love." Michals relented.
That photo fits Uniform Distortion perfectly. James illustrates the way to use it musically as a way of getting at perceived truths using overloaded guitars that blast through economical rock & roll. The songs are wonderfully hooky tomes about self-reflection with societal jeremiads woven through. After the crunchy, self-incriminating Alex Chilton-esque scree of "Just a Fool," "You Get to Rome" is a celebratory affirmation that marries Status Quo's stomp to John Fogerty's hooks. "Out of Time" finds James sounding like Leon Russell fronting Neil Young & Crazy Horse with squalling, razored guitar lines and an R&B chorus: "I'm either behind the times/Or ahead of the times/Or maybe I'm just out of time" is a theme that reverberates throughout the album. "Throwback" references Bruce Springsteen's upbeat optimism through a singalong chorus -- James is so delighted that he cracks up laughing in the middle -- while "No Secrets" bridges Zuma-era Young to Rumours-period Fleetwood Mac to his own My Morning Jacket. The ghost of the Ramones shoots through the blistering "Better Late Than Never," while "Yes to Everything" touches on everyone from Elvis Presley to Dinosaur Jr. "No Use Waiting" is whomping psych-garage exhortation: "We better get together while we still got time." "Too Good to Be True" invokes gospel music to reveal truth as a multidimensional force. While it may not be any easier to make one's way through the distortion that James references, it is somehow easier to bear because of the empathy, joy, and contradiction in these songs.