My Morning Jacket
At Dawn & Tennessee Fire Demos
n the decade thus far, scores of pretenders have been hyped as having that elevated and hopelessly nebulous notion of greatness (thanks for stopping by Strokes!). In reality, only a handful of bands have emerged that can be lassoed into such a discussion. My Morning Jacket is one of them. Before you scoff, consider the details. Their 1999 debut, The Tennessee Fire remains an impressive achievement for a band just out their teens and 2001’s At Dawn was far from a sophomore slump, but still could’ve benefited from some judicious editing (particularly on eight-minute pastoral rambles like “13” and “Honest Man”).
But like any truly great band, they matured and finally achieved greatness sometime around the one minute mark of the fifth track, “One Big Holiday” on their third record, It Still Moves. It was the band’s first certified rock anthem, a thrashing but hopelessly soulful burner, the sort of thing you’d have expected Al Green to have cut in 1973 if, for some reason, he decided to drink a quart of whiskey and record with Crazy Horse. At this point, MMJ had already ditched Darla for the world of the majors, and with it all the promotion muscle that being on ATO, Dave Matthews’ vanity label, could bring. Coupled with a punishing touring schedule that helped spread the gospel of their otherworldly brilliant stage show and an even better follow-up record, Z, and it wasn’t hard to see why My Morning Jacket had become the rare band capable of uniting the precarious divide between the worlds of hippies and hipsters.
The At Dawn and Tennessee Fire Demos are a testament to a time when the band was merely good. As the story goes, Darla’s first pressing of At Dawn came with a bonus demos album, consisting of mostly acoustic stripped-down versions of the songs from the record. Great news if you’re one of the (unfortunately named) Jacket Heads that got in early and snapped up the long out-of-print disc. Not so interesting for casual observers who will hear this once, get impressed by the stark beauty of James’ ethereal voice, and rightfully conclude that spare tranquility is the last thing At Dawn lacked.
In other words, listening to the demos of At Dawn on repeat is possibly the best cure for insomnia ever invented. The songs remain gorgeous, rootsy ballads, but even the biggest MMJ fan would be hard-pressed to sustain these tracks’ meandering lilt while operating heavy machinery. That said, they do highlight one thing: the demos serve as a testament to the inherent melodicism that James possesses, something oft-forgotten in the rush of praise allotted to his voice and flying “V” guitar pyrotechnics.
In addition to the At Dawn demos, Darla has tacked on some other previously un-released rarities. Several demos from The Tennessee Fire, which vacillate between dull, pleasant placidity (“I Think I’m Going to Hell,” “The Bear”) and intriguing Guided by Voices-like experiments in lo-fidelity (“Picture of You,” “Butch Cassidy”), as well as the demo for “Chills,” the b-side from “Off the Record,” and stirring renditions of Tennessee Fire cuts “War Begun” and “It’s About Twilight Now,” recorded live for Louisville radio station WFPK.
Only three of the album’s twenty cuts have never been released in any form, including the proto-punk thrash of early live show staple “L’il Billy,” the somber Johnny Cash homage “Lead Me Father,” and an abbreviated 58 second clip of a song called “Magic Man.” (Sadly, not a cover of the Heart song.) None of the new songs are bad, but none of them leave you wondering why they were left in the vaults in the first place either. The At Dawn & Tennessee Fire demos package isn’t about to win the Jacket any new fans, but it will most certainly satisfy collectors and die-hards looking to piece together a more complete portrait of a great band in their nascent stage of development. At Dawn indeed.
Reviewed by: Jeff Weiss
Reviewed on: 2007-06-19