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My Morning Jacket's Early Recordings: Chapter 1: The Sandworm Cometh and Chapter 2: Learning

by dave heaton

It Still Moves, their major-label rock attack, gave My Morning Jacket a more unified sound and a larger-than-life presence without draining the sincerity and emotional impact from their songs. Along with their unbelievably full touring schedule, it pushed their music to a wider audience, but new fans won't have a real sense for the variety and depth of the band's sound if they haven't heard the group's first two albums, The Tennessee Fire and At Dawn, both released by Darla Records. Those albums reveal the more tender, more haunted, more atmospheric My Morning Jacket. But even those albums alone don't tell the whole story, as a quick listen to their more electrified Chocolate and Ice EP or a tour through their 7" singles reveal.

My Morning Jacket's music contains countryfied classic rock and ghostly Neil Young dopplegangers, but also everything from pure pop tunes to spaced-out experimentalism. Two new collections of 'early recordings, b-sides, covers y mas' reveal all that and more. Chapter 1: The Sandworm Cometh and Chapter 2: Learning are trips through the group's Darla Records days, via unreleased recordings, demo versions of album tracks, compilation contributions, and b-sides from rare 7"s and EPs. These are the perfect My Morning Jacket releases to seduce music lovers put off by the group's most extroverted rocking-out moments; here they're at once sensitive stylists and mood-scientists, laidback C&W dreamers, and lovers of pop music of all stripes.

Taken together, The Sandworm Cometh and Learning present quite an epic tale, one with vast emotional power. Jim James' voice soars and shines like he's a supernatural mix between a long-forgotten pop crooner, a rock n' roll hero, and your next-door neighbor sitting on his front porch and singing hymns to the moon. And the band backs him up both loosely and evocatively, shading each emotion his voice touches on.

The Sandworm, which overall has a hazy tone akin to the band's debut album The Tennessee Fire, is alone filled with moments of absolute heart and feeling, from the exquisite opener "Weeks Go By Like Days" through to the surprisingly powerful CD-closing cover of Elton John's "Rocket Man." In between gems are everywhere; there's a gorgeous acoustic version of The Tennessee Fire's "They Ran," an oddly groovy unreleased pop song called "I Just Wanted To Be You Friend," and the b-side "Isobella w/ the White Umbrella," which is both a romantic pop ode and a slow, fuzzed-out riddle.

Those who think of My Morning Jacket as "southern-rockers" will find their jaws dropped to the floor in confusion by the third track on Chapter 2: Learning: A cover of Berlin's "Take My Breath Away," from the movie Top Gun. This is a straightforward, played-to-the-hilt version of it, performed clearly as a joke, or is it? There's a love of what mainstream pop singles do to their listeners on display here, yet they're also clearly having fun, like a bunch of drunk karaoke singers. Right after it's a just-as-straight cover of Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls," likely to seem straight out of left field. Then there's a great laidback-showman's take on "Dream a Lil' Dream of Me" - sincere and sublime - and, later, a full-on soul ballad done up Jacket style, Erykah Badu's "Tyrone". These covers are fun, and kind of casual, but they're also genuine, and show a real unabashed love for music, something people in the ever-too-cool new millennium often seem to think they're above.

On the whole Learning is more of a diverse listen than Sandworm, and more oriented to messing around and seeing where it gets you. That applies not just to the covers, but to great oddities like the percussive clouds-and-piano-and-harmonica ditty "Nothing 2 Me" or the drum-machine-ified opener "Tonite I Want 2 Celebrate With You," a perfect little come-on. But that's not all. There's pristine versions of "I Will Be There When You Die" and "Bermuda Hiway," a Hank Williams cover, and so much more.

My Morning Jacket are a rarity in today's music world: not just as a group that successfully moved from independent labels to the mainstream without giving up their integrity, not just as a group that has a ton of tricks up their collective sleeve, but as a group of musicians who seem to really love what they do, who just straight-up care about music and how it affects people, who know the positive force music can have for people and genuinely want their music to do the same.


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