At Dawn/Tennessee Fire Demos – My Morning Jacket
_At Dawn/Tennessee Fire Demos _ – My Morning Jacket, Darla Records 156
self-titled – Mont de Sundua_, Removador Records_
You can pretty safely file the both of these under "For Completists Only."
Mont de Sundua (or Month of Sundays) was Jim James’ band before he formed the Jacketeers, and the trio’s occasionally crunchy but often plodding
full-length languished on a shelf for nearly ten years for good reason.
This will be a great boon to those fans from back in the day still reveling
in their beer-soaked memories, but to the rest of us it just sounds like any
group of friends rawkin’ out in the garage. While there’s nothing wrong
with rawkin’ in the garage, there’s little truly right about this record
either, little to recommend it above your own favorite bar-rockin’ local
band of this day or of your own beer-soaked days of yore.
You can catch a
little whiff of the chiming/stomping/good-rockin’ fun you get from My Morning Jacket these days, but either the proportions are off or the brew is not
yet fermented. For the record, you might also catch a whiff of the
decomposing corpse of grunge that lingered in the air when this record was
recorded in 1998. Pushed by James’ own label, Removador, this is likely a
labor of love geared for a select few, and those few should love it.
Much of the Demos package will be familiar to early-birds and thieves, as
more than half of it was released as a bonus disc with early runs of the
stellar At Dawn. The ten At Dawn takes feature James
multi-tracking himself on a four-track. The demos are rough, unmixed,
and raw, and what immediately strikes you is how little these songs lose in
their original incarnations. While much of that is a tribute to James’ strength as a
songwriter, the band doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table when they flesh
out his bare-boned songs. As these demos make resoundingly clear (and as
most MMJ fans already knew), the band’s first two records could just as
easily be billed as the Jim James Band. The fault lies on both sides of
The leap the band made with Z seems to me now a
function of the steady growth of a songwriter who has learned to write for a
band rather than for himself alone. While there is little in the completed
tracks of At Dawn that could not be easily predicted by listening to
the demos, the same can’t be said for much of It Still Moves or
almost all of Z. Sure "Golden" doesn’t gain much by the full-band
treatment, but a just-Jim version of "One Big Holiday," "Wordless Chorus,"
or "Off the Record" would be little more than a shadow of its ultimate
form. In this package, you get five Tennessee Fire cuts (three with
a full band) and a few live takes off radio and the like (including a nice
"War Begun"), but the best part of the Demos package isn’t what it is but
what it proves. It proves that Jim James is a helluva songwriter who has
learned with each record to be a better and better band-leader.
And that’s why these are for completists only. There is nothing
earth-shattering here, nothing you’re going to immediately throw on a
playlist of email to a friend, but the cuts are still revelatory. The
greater virtue of this pair of records is that they flesh out the arc of Jim
James’ career by giving shape to his growth, and anything that proves that
At Dawn, brilliant as it is, is the work of a songwriter who hasn’t
yet begun to mature is worth releasing.