My Morning Jacket’s Second Full Length ‘At Dawn’ Gets 20th Anniversary Reissue (ALBUM REVIEW)

Darla Records is recognizing the twentieth anniversary of My Morning Jacket’s At Dawn in much the same fashion the label afforded the milestone of the band’s debut The Tennessee Fire. On double-CD, digital and three LPs of vinyl, the sophomore album appears alongside the bonus of a live recording containing a complete Jim James solo acoustic set from March of 2001.

Six cuts of the total seven in the latter are previously unreleased. “Bermuda Highway” appeared before on 2004’s Chapter 2: Learning: Early Recordings, but, like its counterparts, serves to illustrate how the mechanics of James’ songwriting informs his performance(s). With his rudimentary strumming as an anchor for renditions of selections such as “Lowdown,” it becomes readily discernible how James contours his unconventional use of language to a freewheeling vocal delivery. Yet his eccentric means of expression hardly muffles the communication of emotion(s). 

On the contrary, “Nashville to Kentucky” is an unsettling depiction of psychic terror. “I Needed It Most” is a precocious bit of self-reflection, the impact of which only increases in juxtaposition to a meditation on mortality called “I Will Be There When You Die.” As one of the two arrangements here that feature James picking his guitar, the slightly wobbly fingering on the latter still implants the importance of the promise in the title. More such ‘soloing’ accompanies the jaunty rhythm chording in “Just Because I Do” and serves to belie the keening abandon Jim displays with his voice, at least until the defensive attitude in the words hits home. 

The full band arrangement of that tune on the At Dawn album itself camouflages the sentiment somewhat. But the musicianship still serves to illustrate how guitarist Johnny Quaid, bassist Tom Blankenship, keyboardist Danny Cash and drummer J. Glenn coalesce as a unit with enough power and purpose enough to match the momentum generated by their frontman. However, “Hopefully,” like “The Way That He Sings,” is one of too many tracks that proceeds at the same mid-tempo pace (an issue corrected with the sharper dynamics of the very next album It Still Moves). The sum effect of the fourteen total cuts might’ve further benefited from the inclusion of fewer numbers and/or using snippets of the untitled closer as segues between the others. 

Due to the exemplary technical expertise of Dave Trumfio (Billy Bragg & Wilco, Built to Spill)  the original studio recordings were not remastered specifically for this anniversary release. Still, the dense mix the Grammy-nominated musician/engineer first oversaw with /titular leader of MMJ delineates the relationship between vocals and instrumentation, at least partially compensating for the slightly muddled production. 

Nevertheless, the nearly impenetrable nature of the sound remains fitting, albeit ironically so,  especially as it corresponds to the graphics of this six-panel digipak. With the red-orange color scheme also near-3D on the enclosed eight-page booklet, an array of photos appears juxtaposed with all the lyrics printed in a font of so stylized a scrawl it’s almost impossible to read. It’s a design that suits the eccentricity band who recorded  At Dawn, even if the end result of their efforts might well have benefited from the economy of the accompanying forty-minute concert in this 20th Anniversary Edition.

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