March 04, 2005

My Morning Jacket "Chapter One:The Sandman Cometh" & "Chapter Two: Learning"

My Morning Jacket's rise from some long-haired Lexington dudes making records in their barn to one of today's premier live rock bands has been nothing if not astounding. When they released The Tennessee Fire and At Dawn--both good records that were drowned in reverb and cough-syrup--it didn't really seem as if they were poised for anything more than cult status. Who knew they'd get a big record deal, widespread mainstream acclaim and a wonderfully beautiful, polished-up record like It Still Moves? It couldn't have happened to a better band, though.

Their former label, Darla Records, boasts that there are hours of My Morning Jacket outtakes in their vaults, and these two records, entitled Chapter 1: The Sandman Cometh and Chapter 2: Learning are two forays into those vaults. Consisting of "Early Recordings, B-Sides, Covers y Mas," these two volumes cover a lot of sonic ground from Jim James' formidable years--and, like many young musicians, that means one thing: cover songs! Between the two discs, you'll find covers of Eryka Badu ("Tyrone"), Jefferson Airplane ("White Rabbit") Pet Shop Boys ("West End Girls"), Elton John ("Rocket Man"), Hank Williams ("Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used To Do?"), Santo & Johnny ("Sleepwalking") and Berlin ("Take My Breath Away"--complete with samples from the movie Top Gun!) But what's even more obvious is the seriousness with which they cover them. True, it might seem funny to cover the love song from Top Gun, but they do so with reverence, and the result is a version that's almost better than the original.

It's fascinating to listen to some of these early songs, because it allows you to see the magic that often gets lost underneath the hair and the reverb.Most of the material on these two records avoid the overt rock sounds of later works, and you can't help but feel as if the rest of the band--all fine musicians--weren't that important in the early days. Instead of the long jams that have come to dominate their albums, many of these songs are brief, two or three minute numbers. Demo versions of later songs might be stripped down, but they're much stronger that way. James yelps like the eternal bluesman on "Death Is The Easy Way," making the song even more harrowing and pathetic. The radio version of "Bermuda Highway" is even more touching and powerful and the live song "Old Sept. Blues" (with its introduction taken from "Sleepwalk" by Santo & Johny) is a heartbreakingly beautiful live recording. There are some real weepers here, too, such as "I Won't Cry" and "Evelyn," which find James mending his broken heart through song.

As one would expect, these two discs are not without lesser moments; as such, It's best to remember that these records serve more as a gift for the hardcore fans than as an introduction for the unfamiliar. These are baby pictures of the band's early years, of course, and so not everything works. Some songs feel unfinished; some ideas don't quite work, and some songs just aren't very good. That danger comes hand-in-hand with a project like this, and luckily those weaker moments really do nothing to detracts from My Morning Jacket's greatness. As both discs have a great deal of excellent material, there's no need to fear being short-changed. The best bet is to simply listen to both discs and make a compilation of your favorite moments or set both discs in a muti-disc player and hit random.

My Morning Jacket's a great rock band, period. These early, baby-step snapshots of the young group provide for a fascinating listen. While these "early year" collections might not prove to be the best starting place for new fans (I recommend their most recent album, the wonderful It Still Moves), they're certainly a welcome gift for My Morning Jacket fans. Perhaps these two discs are the first two offerings in a series of early and rare recordings; a third chapter--a reissue of the bonus disc of demos & outtakes that came with the first pressing of At Dawn-- is slated for release this year. (Might I make a suggestion/request? A collection of live and radio recordings would serve them well; the KVRX broadcast--from which "Bermuda Highway" is taken--is a gorgeous set that deserves to be heard.)

--Joseph Kyle

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