Ah, demos. The audiophile’s fix. The completist’s dream. Along with the popularity of file-sharing over the years, demos have gained a new place for music fans. Whether found on the Internet like Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot demos, or tacked onto a re-release like Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys, demos can be fascinating and enlightening gems offering insight into the process for many classic albums. The recent rash of more immediate demo releases, included with pre-orders or made into vinyl-only releases produce less consistent results, but still acknowledge a place in the market for demos and alternate takes.
Like many demos, most of the stuff on My Morning Jacket’s At Dawn and Tennessee Fire Demos Package were originally offered on a bonus disc to the first 2,500 buyers of At Dawn. That they are now being given wide release does call into question not necessarily how “good” these songs are, but what they might reveal about a great band that even the most devoted fan might not have considered before.
Thankfully, the folks at Darla Records know what they’re doing, and this collection is plenty worthy of release. My Morning Jacket has built their career on a blistering live show and brilliant classic guitar work, but little is said of them, and singer Jim James in particular, as songwriters. These demos, however, seek to do just that. Stripped of the loud rock band around him, these songs put Jim James on display, and he stands up to the scrutiny well. “It’s just the way that he sings, not the words that he says,” James croons on opener “The Way that He Sings” and he could easily be talking about himself. While much is said of his reverb-soaked, sweetly rolling vocals, very little is said about what the man is singing about. But without the guitar solos and thumping drums, the demos force the listener to hear Jim out.
And James comes across like a folk singer here, a man clearly in touch with many traditions: folk, country, classic rock, even R&B. “I Needed It Most” could almost be a hymn, with each word painfully drawn out over faint harmonies. When James sings “You only gotta dance with me” at the end of “Lowdown”, you realize that James’ writing is just as heartfelt and bittersweet as his singing is. This group of songs — the first 10 included here are demos intended for At Dawn — come together not totally as an early version of another album, but almost as their own country-folk collection. The songs are stocked with subtle guitar lines and group harmonies and harmonicas, and most of the songs sound like you could be hearing them down at the town watering hole, blowing saw dust out of your beer while James and company tap into the high lonesome sound.
Of course, these are demos, so not everything works as well as it could. A few samples thrown in, of things like automated telephone operators, come off as too cosmetic for songs so organic. And, of course, there’s the sound quality. While demos can’t be expected to sound crystal clear, and these sound great on the whole, a couple of these — the title track in particular — are just grainy enough to put the listener off. In comparison with the At Dawn stuff, the Tennessee Fire demos included here (and there are only a few) feel tacked on and unnecessary. Songs like “The Bear” and “Heartbreakin’ Man” are great My Morning Jacket staples, but here they sound like rough cuts of the album tracks, offering little in the way of insight into the band’s artistic process.
Towards the end of the collection, My Morning Jacket reminds us they haven’t forgotten what made them famous: their live show. The three live tracks here — including setlist favorite “Lil’ Billy” — show that this band has always been good live, and has always put a ton of energy into their shows. The energy even turns a little scary when James starts screaming at the end of “Twilight”. Still, though, these tracks, in particular the version of “War Begun”, provide more evidence (if the double live album Okonokos wasn’t enough) that My Morning Jacket might be the best live act going. Still, one can’t help but hope that these demos will serve to give James the credit he deserves as a songwriter. He’s been palling around with M. Ward and Conor Oberst for years, and they seem to be getting the credit they deserve. Is it now finally time to show this songwritin’ man some love?