My Morning Jacket Found Their Sound on At Dawn, Released 20 Years Ago This Week
Whenever there’s an anniversary for a record that meant so much to me, I can’t help but be shocked at the passage of time. People have different ways of remembering periods in their life, and for me, I can put on an old album and be taken right back to memories of old friends and acquaintances that I haven’t thought of in ages. It’s my favorite way to reminisce when I’m looking for a blast of healthy nostalgia.
This week, My Morning Jacket celebrated the twentieth anniversary of their second album, At Dawn, a notion that punched me in the stomach.
Like many other MMJ fans, my love of the band would start two years later with It Still Moves, the follow-up that would catapult the Kentuckians into the indie spotlight. Naturally, I ended up buying their first two records, and At Dawn became the companion to It Still Moves that would follow me through my first few years of college.
While I hadn’t listened to At Dawn in years before writing this, my first thought when playing the new anniversary remaster was, “they don’t make albums like this anymore,” said in my best old man voice.
At Dawn is a campfire album full of acoustic ballads that makes you want to sit in the yard while crushing some cheap beers after a good sunset. It finds the young band forming their signature psychedelic Southern country-rock sound, but they haven’t quite found their footing yet.
The making of these early albums is something of a legend, recorded by singer Jim James and his cousin, Johnny Quaid, at their family farm in Shelbyville, Kentucky. They are drenched in reverb, with James’ trademark throaty twang vocals recorded in an abandoned grain silo. While their debut, The Tennessee Fire, was recorded primarily by James and Quaid, with bassist Tom Blankenship and drummer J. Glenn offering their talents on a few tracks.
At Dawn is the first time MMJ recorded as a full four-piece, with “Two-Tone Tommy” and Glenn now full-time members, and the payoff is spectacular. An album that takes its time getting anywhere, it flows like sips of a syrupy bourbon, like on “Lowdown,” an upbeat track still in no hurry. There’s also the Exile-era Stones groove of “Honest Man,” a song that sounds like the band is playing in the chickenwire-covered bandstand from Roadhouse, with the crowd throwing beer bottles and My Morning Jacket ignoring the whole ordeal. On “Phone Went West,” there are hints of the reggae they would explore later on with Z, and the stabbing intro to the epic closer “Strangulation” is still a favorite.
For me, though, At Dawn is defined by the two delicate tracks “Hopefully” and “Bermuda Highway,” both a certain kind of acoustic ballad that has fallen out over the last decade. “Hopefully” lends to the “summer on the back porch” surroundings by including the ambient sounds of crickets as James croons, “hopefully it occurs to me that there's one thing I can’t stand, that's the thought of a single day, without your head in my hand.”
“Bermuda Highway” is a gorgeous number that I will always consider to be a top tier MMJ song, and its chorus of “don’t let your silly dreams fall in between the crack of the bed and the wall” has been a mantra I find myself oft repeating to this day.
My Morning Jacket would go on to much bigger things, with Patrick Hallahan joining on drums for It Still Moves being a large part. Johnny Quaid would also leave the band, replaced by Carl Broemel on guitar and Bo Koster on keyboards, which has given the band its steady lineup for the last 16 years.
Jim James’ solo material that has followed is phenomenal stuff. The last MMJ record, The Waterfall (and its sister, The Waterfall II), showed the band is still going strong when they are interested in releasing new material.
There’s something, though, that can’t be recaptured on At Dawn. It is very “of its era” with the lengthy running time and heartfelt lyrics. The new remaster is worth checking out as the bass is appropriately raised in the mix, from what I remember. The included demos and Jim James solo set are also an excellent appendix to the studio album.
At Dawn is available on Darla.