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My Morning Jacket 

At Dawn (Darla)

Wednesday, Aug 15 2001
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Despite being My Morning Jacket's second effort for Sacramento independent label Darla Records, At Dawn hardly qualifies as indie. Instead, the Nashville group draws inspiration from relics like the Eagles and the Band, pushing stadium-size Americana into a darker place. (Naturally, this kind of reappropriation works better in Holland, where My Morning Jacket sells out big halls, appears on TV, and plays massive outdoor festivals.)

My Morning Jacket's singer/songwriter, Jim James, is a woolly mountain man who takes classic rock moves -- big chord changes, a V-shaped axe, lengthy guitar solos -- and molds them into howling personal dramas. While James may toy with the balcony-seating sound, his songs more closely resemble the work of an insular and damaged lo-fi artist than a jet-setting rock star. To emphasize this fact, At Dawn includes an extra disc of demos that reveals just how fractured the originals are. These stripped-bare recordings are so raw that they're unsettling: Imagine a despondent Neil Young wailing funeral dirges into a telephone answering machine.

Although James' solo songs are impressively eerie, the full-band arrangements achieve an epic sweep that's even more enjoyable -- when done right. The reverb-heavy mix that transforms James' voice into an unnerving siren song gives the band a cathedral-size space to stretch out in. Unfortunately, some songs, like "Just Because I Do," veer into bad boogie-rock territory, with far too much bar-band jamming. The spare numbers, such as the solo country ballad "Hopefully" and the brittle, banjo-led "If It Smashes Down," induce the real chills. The downcast growing pains of "I Needed It Most" is almost unbearably heart-wrenching.

Two discs worth of this downbeat stuff can be emotionally draining, but there's also comfort in witnessing James' tribulations. As long as My Morning Jacket continues to balance its stadium indulgences with naked emotion, adventurous listeners will hold their cigarette lighters aloft.

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Silas Paine

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