I’ve always felt a strange affinity towards the rarities album. Though infrequently perfect, these discs often offer an idiosyncratic peak into a band’s motivations, artistic scope, and sources of indulgence.
But honestly, who cares? Oddities discs exist for one reason — to satiate us hardcore devotees during the seemingly endless span between albums, lest we tear out our own eyes first in rabidly excruciating, nail-biting anticipation. Which isn’t to say that these albums are ever mere filler; aside from the occasional last-ditch attempt to squeeze any remaining pennies from an extinct act’s waning fanbase (think Jane’s Addiction’s Kettle Whistle), the fanboy in me tends to imagine albums like Pisces Iscariot — an all-time fave of mine, though I rarely admit it — as discreet love letters to the truly infatuated, as rewards for our unwavering devotion. And it can be a good feeling, too, being the only person to get an album, finding unique beauty within the ear-splitting tape hiss, embarrassingly kitschy covers, botched b-sides, sonic experiments gone horribly awry, and, of course, the occasional hidden gem. Because in the end, really, it’s just about having more to hear.
Well, lucky for us, My Morning Jacket has delivered two volumes of early recordings for those of us eagerly anticipating the follow-up to 2003’s It Still Moves. The Sandworm Cometh, the first of the two, makes immediately evident the expansive repertoire the band had built before the release of their 1999 debut The Tennessee Fire, including 7″ singles, demos, compilation tracks, and yes, the occasional kitschy cover. It’s also surprisingly consistent for such a compilation, and while the arrangements are often bare — many songs feature only frontman Jim James — much of the songwriting hints at the fully-formedness that would eventually characterize their debut.
In opener “Weeks Go By Like Days”, subtle, tremolo-laden guitar stabs emerge above a steady drum stomp, before a finger-picked acoustic melody weaves itself around James’ beautiful yet sorrowful intonations and hollers. “Long is the road, I have always been told/how long can one man wait?” he mourns, just as a guitar-as-tears solo emerges beneath his plaintive repetition of the word “forever”. That same lamenting heavy-heartedness — which so beautifully pervaded songs like “Hopefully” and “Bermuda Highway” on MMJ’s sophomore disc At Dawn — is found in abundance throughout Sandworm, particularly in the previously unreleased, a cappella “Time Never Gets”. Here, a choir of James’ ghostly, layered vocals harmonizes like some apparitional breeze, bemoaning that “life without you is like a heart attack.”
While a “be-mixed” version of The Tennessee Fire‘s “Evelyn Is Not Real” fails to stray far from the album version, a live rendition of “Old September Blues” — also from MMJ’s debut — flushes out the familiar by incorporating the classic, instrumental surf-rock ballad “Daydream” into the intro. James and Co. indulge themselves with two other equally ubiquitous covers, as well: Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and Elton John’s “Rocket Man”. The former — awash in fuzz and distortion — is almost as terrifying as the original, abetted by a crescendoing accumulation of crashing cymbal strikes and Jim James’ violent, tortured screams. And while “White Rabbit” ultimately flounders due to sheer superfluity, “Rocket Man” is among the band’s most triumphant performances on any record. Replacing John’s piano-driven bombasticisms with some dusty acoustic, James’ reverb-laden vocals quickly claim prominence, their vulnerability effectively evoking the same mournfulness found in “Weeks Go By Like Days” and “Time Never Gets”. With an obvious emphasis on Jim James’ singing resulting from the sparse instrumentation, The Sandworm Cometh makes an almost incontrovertible case: perhaps only second to Neko Case, Jim James is one of this decade’s most powerful alt-country vocalists.
All things considered, The Sandworm Cometh will likely recede into dust-gathering neglect with most fans. And it’s a shame, too; the disc is a charming collection of rarities, which — while offering both hits and misses — allows a fascinating look into the infancy of one of alt-country’s most exciting ensembles.