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My Morning Jacket

At Dawn

(Darla; US: 29 May 2001)

"Why does my mind blow to bits every time they play that song? It's just the way that he sings, not the words that he says, or the band," sings Jim James at one point during My Morning Jacket's second album At Dawn, and the words could almost be those of a listener trying to figure out why My Morning Jacket blows him away so much. For At Dawn has an ineffable magic to it from start to finish, one that leads me to scour my brain for words that could describe something that sounds so special. And, yes, one important part of their effect is the way that James sings -- he has a gorgeous voice that soars above everything and pierces the hidden part of your being that generates goose bumps and tears, and makes you catch your breath in awe.

It isn’t just the way that he sings, there’s so much more to My Morning Jacket’s sound. Yet trying to describe their music with categories and formulas or trying to pin down exactly why their songs tug at your heartstrings in such an immediate way would be like chasing after clouds and trying to hug them—you can try all you’d like, but you’re not going to accomplish much. You’re better off turning off the analytical part of your brain and just listening, letting their music work its wonder on you.

My Morning Jacket are from Louisville, Kentucky, and they project a certain laidback matter-of-factness that may or may not have anything to do with where they’re from. They sound like a group of guys who grew up on classic rock, country and some old soul, pop and rock records, and are now just making the music that feels right to them, without attempting to fit into any current musical scene. Their songs suggest all of the above musical influences, but don’t fit any one musical costume, per se; they’re not imitative of any one genre, yet it isn’t a stretch to hear plenty of Southern rock bands or folk/blues singers in their sound.

At Dawn is a sweeping work (especially the first 1,000 copies sold, which include a fine bonus CD of demos), covering over 70 minutes of time and uncountable miles of emotional territory. James sings with the sort of rawness found in the best stripped-down singer-songwriters’ songs (Neil Young is most often noted as a touchstone), and the rest of the band supports him with a full, almost cinematic expansiveness. His lyrics deal with human relationships, stories and experiences, a fact that makes their music hit your heart even more, yet they do so in a poetic, not necessarily linear way, more like someone’s personal thoughts than straight-out messages for listeners. My Morning Jacket also have melodies galore. Whether on a directly pop tune like “Lowdown” or a more abstract ballad like the jaw-droppingingly beautiful “Bermuda Highway”, the melodies fly into the air and shine, in a timeless way that makes me believe this album will be staying close to my stereo years after many others have come and gone.

My Morning Jacket’s songs are catchy, their lyrics are memorable, they’re superb musicians, the lead singer has a unique voice, and they weave it all together remarkably. Yet above all, nearly every song on At Dawn has an indescribable feeling that shakes you through to your core. Any time a pop or rock song can give you chills, that’s something. When a whole album can do it, that’s something else entirely.

Dave Heaton has been writing about music on a regular basis since 1993, first for unofficial college-town newspapers and DIY fanzines and now mostly on the Internet. In 2000, the same year he started writing for PopMatters, he founded the online arts magazine, still around but often in flux. He writes music reviews for the print magazine The Big Takeover. He is a music obsessive through and through. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

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