My Morning Jacket is sort of like a Louisville Ween: Playful but heartfelt, artsy but unpretentious, and capable of shelving bizarro freak-tunes alongside evocative and nostalgic songs. It's a toss-up as to how 22-year-old Jim James, the Neil Young-channeling singer and songwriter for MMJ, would take to that comparison, but we're standing by it.
Besides, the comparison refers more to sensibility than to sound. At Dawn is the follow-up to The Tennessee Fire, the (say it with me) critically acclaimed but commercially ignored 1999 record that first demonstrated their talents. And while MMJ's vibe owes far less to The Pod than it does to Music from Big Pink, the blend of folksy Americana and self-conscious art noise speaks of a uniquely skewed gyroscope at the center of the music.
Consider "Death is the Easy Way," a laconic lament that arises from a ratty cigarette-scarred chair in the middle of somebody's first apartment at about 3 a.m.: "The nights tick by like a long week/Except when you stop by . . . / And nothing gets you high/You're poor the day you die/And alcohol it only makes you tired." Or the chorus of "Hopefully," in which James laments that the only thing he can't stand "is the thought of one single day/Without your head in my hands." Creepy. But you've thought the same thing to yourself on your off days.
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That's the most startling thing about At Dawn -- the fact that James' voice might come from a 22-year-old body, but it's powered by a set of lungs and a pair of eyes that are well into their 50s. The sheer weight of the world, pressing down on every note, doesn't make that voice sound depressed or defeated; James' delivery is borne up by a spirit that says hell, yes, life is hard, and listen here, I wrote a song about it. (The first 2,500 copies of At Dawn come packaged with a bonus disc of James' demos for the album -- interesting and entertaining enough in their own right, to be sure, but not really necessary to enjoy the album as a whole.)
Calling My Morning Jacket's sophomore release alt-country, or Americana, or art-folk, all of which it sounds like in various places, dances around the point. Imagine a version of Wilco's Being There whittled down to the slow, melancholy tracks, and you're closer; "Honest Man," an Allman Brothers-style stomper, boasts the only guitar-heavy swagger on the record. But At Dawn laces enough humor through its melancholy to keep it from being morose. The band is loose and talented, the songs are wistful and heartbreaking, and the whole is recommended without reservation.