My Morning Jacket: Early Recordings, Chapter 2: Learning
It's not surprising that the sublime "Mahgeeta", from My Morning Jacket's 2003 album It Still Moves, was put to use in a recent beer commercial. The song is instantly familiar, even to those who never heard it before. It sounds fresh and contemporary, and yet it seems it could have been recorded any time in the past 30 years. It summons a majestic sweep without context or buildup. It delivers a powerful blast of feeling that's not specifically attached to any particular emotion; it can be wistful, jubilant, austere, mournful, confident, exuberant, or romantic, depending on who you are or where you're at that moment, or it can be all of these things at once, evoking the limitless moods and possibilities of life itself in a well-edited 30 seconds. In other words, the song accomplishes what all ads aspire to; it renders manifest contradictions irrelevant, it suspends reality and makes all things seem possible and effortless.
When a band is capable of summoning this kind of expressive power, it may be self-defeating to look behind the curtain and see them on a more human scale. Why undermine the magic with a more intimate view of the band? But this collection of also-rans does precisely that, highlighting the band's bad ideas and in jokes while charting the progress their vanity has made against their better sense since fame started to set in. Generally, there is a good reason that certain songs are shunted off to small-label compilations and foreign-issue b-sides, and that some studio experiments remain unreleased altogether: They aren't very good, and the band realizes these clunkers will detract from their solid material if sidled up against it. For a band trying to crystallize its sound, less really is more. But having your song used to such potent effect in a national TV commercial probably makes you pretty confident that you've established yourself, and you (or maybe your former indie record label you left behind) probably start thinking you "owe" it to your fans to offer them easier access to your effluvial work.
You would probably need to be a superfan to be interested in the songs on this collection: demo versions of "Death is the Easy Way" and "Just One Thing" that shed scant light on the songs' development (but they do, however, showcase the strength of singer and chief songwriter Jim James's voice even without the signature reverb saturation), stripped-down live versions of "Bermuda Highway" and "I Will Be There When You Die", a few noisy, misbegotten experiments with drum-machine backing ("Tonite I Want to Celebrate with You" and "Nothing to Me"), and a collection of covers that range from somewhat predictable (Hank Williams's "Why Don't You Love Me") to apparently absurd (faithful renditions of the Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls" and Berlin's "Take My Breath Away", from the Top Gun soundtrack). But its understandable why My Morning Jacket might be drawn to such material: The melodramatic sweep of these eighties hits achieve in a different context what James's own best songs seem to be shooting for. Were James and company to reconfigure these songs to suit their style rather than approximate the original '80s sound, the band might have given those songs some unanticipated dignity, unveiling something surprising at their core, something the transcends their limited usefulness as kitsch of their era. But instead they come across like patronizing karaoke pranks.
Two other covers demonstrate what might have been. Their version of the standard "Dream a Little Dream of Me" deploys canyonesque reverb to give the song a rippling, sleepy spaciousness, the kind of borderless flow of actual dreams. And best of all is the band's cover of Erykah Badu's "Tyrone", which, even if it began as a joke, is compelling enough on its own terms that it temporarily obliterates your memory of the original. It makes for a modest, unexpected triumph, perfectly suited to a one-time in-studio radio performance. But that you'd want to hear It, or any of these other tracks, over and over again is another matter.