The 20th Anniversary Edition of The Tennessee Fire features a markedly different My Morning Jacket lineup than the one in existence today (and since 2003’s It Still Moves). In fact, only chief composer, lead singer and guitarist Jim James and bassist Two-Tone Tommy (Blankenship) were present in the quartet for the group’s Darla Records debut album (and its immediate successor, At Dawn).
Nevertheless, on both the remastered version of the original release and the extra sixteen cuts on a second CD (the same number as the formal sequence), the group is readily recognizable in all its melodramatic glory, primarily due to the heavy reverb present on James’ vocals. Such wordless choruses, introduced here on “Heartbreakin’ Man”and most noticeably double-tracked on “Butch Cassidy,” remain prominent element of the MMJ sound even today as it’s accentuated through the accompaniment of drummer Patrick Hallahan, guitarist Carl Broemel, and keyboardist Bo Koster.
The comparatively softer acoustic tones dominating here begin to fade, at least somewhat, with the insistent drum beat within “The Bear,” but remain integral on relatively abbreviated tracks such as “Old Sept Blues” so that, by the closing of “Untitled Instrumental (Alabama Come Clean),” the haunting quality of the recording has conjured up a discernible atmosphere, one that ultimately permeates all the performances through the enhanced audio of the remastering (by original engineer Kyle Statham?).
But the sound quality also reveals a loose, spontaneous air here too (like the DIY graphic design, reminiscent of Neil Young), one far removed from the group’s most recent records such as Circuital and The Waterfall (though perhaps taken a bit too far on “I Will Be There When You Die”). As a result, the ever-so-ragged glory of the second compact disc sounds like the soundtrack(s) of a bizarre series of dreams (or nightmares); Two titles, “Heartbreakin’ Man” and “I Think I’m Going To Hell,” carry-over from the 2007 Tennessee Fire/At Dawn Demos Package, yet these, like the rest of the bonus tracks selected by Jim James, are previously unreleased.
The demos of those two numbers compel questions about the roughly hour-long official album sequence. Perhaps the excision of electric guitar, so conspicuous on tracks such as “ Flew in on a Dead Horse,” was the most prevalent deciding factor. Certainly (some if not all) original songs like “If All Else Fails” are as strong as their counterparts, even if the production applied to them is severely limited As such, this clutch of tunes sounds like a solo album from the titular leader of the group (sans the contrivance of his recent efforts) and presents something of a counterpart to the current lineup’s playing of The Tennessee Fire in its entirety on select dates during the summer of 2019.
While that gesture may well have presented a means for the group to reconnect with its roots, this 20th Anniversary Edition of the debut album presents a corollary opportunity for both devout fans and dilettantes curious about My Morning Jacket: it is a vivid depiction of how Jim James and company first learned to fully and completely enrapture their listeners.