My Morning Jacket: The Tennessee Fire: 20th Anniversary Edition (Darla) Review | Under the Radar - Music Magazine

My Morning Jacket

The Tennessee Fire: 20th Anniversary Edition

Darla

Aug 14, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Before My Morning Jacket released a handful of masterpieces, a definitive live album/concert film, and amassed a cultish fanbase which snarks at the likes of contemporary jam-bands Widespread Panic and Umphrey's McGee, there was Above the Cadillac, a makeshift studio in the top level of a barn which belonged to frontman Jim James' extended family. James, alongside his cousin, guitarist Johnny Quaid, longtime My Morning Jacket bassist Tom Blankenship (credited on the album as "Two Tone Tommy"), and J. Glenn on drums, work-shopped and eventually shaped what became The Tennessee Fire. It was the spring of 1999; the idea of mythic, insular country-rock drowning in a lake of reverb couldn't sound more alien or out-of-place. But the people loved it.

This is exactly what happenedJim James sent an eye-popping package of demos to the now California-based label Darla. "Early one Sunday morning, I popped the tape in and fell in love," says Darla founder James Agren on the label's page for the reissue. By February of 2000, Dutch TV channel VPRO TV aired This is NOT America, a short documentary of a then-baby faced Jim James and company touring various parts of Europe. It's a tale which feels like distant fiction of another lifetime in 2019old busted tape lands on the desk of indie label owner, within a year that same band is touring Europe and selling out shows, soon to become one of the most mythologized live acts in 21st century American music. It all started with The Tennessee Fire

The Tennessee Fire introduced the reverb-heavy sound that follows My Morning Jacket up until this very day (James' vocals were even recorded in an abandoned grain silo)but this attribute is merely aesthetic. The Tennessee Fire is where James' songwriting and vocal stylings grew comparisons to Brian Wilson, Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteenbut even these comparisons, which are no small compliment to a then-obscure alt-country frontman from Kentucky, sound lackluster, even vague. James' vocals were too pretty to sound like Springsteen; too dark and ethereal to border Young; too discombobulated and dirty to keep Wilson company. If anything, James slipped into the corner of eerie Americana alongside Will Oldham and Jason Molina. Stellar company, but comparisons strip away the various idiosyncrasies of James' haunted backwoods siren calls. 

On the deluxe 20th anniversary reissue of The Tennessee Fire, Darla has packed an additional 16 tracks to the original 16among these oddities are sparse, unheard demos of James accompanied by an acoustic guitar and a cheap drum machine; alternate takes of "Evelyn is not Real," "Heartbreakin' Man," "If All Else Fails," "I Think I'm Going to Hell," and various takes of "The Bear." Among the unreleased standouts are "Gifts," "Plasma Ball," and "Breathin' Afterbirth." What stands out most are the various influences that are the very opposite of folk and country influences-Vibraphone-soaked jazz, slow, brooding hip-hop drum samples, and glitched electronica, a style of My Morning Jacket's which grew more prominent with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Bo Koster in 2004.  

Revisiting The Tennessee Fire 20 years later, there is still nothing that sounds like it. This isn't always a good thingthe album is lo-fi to a fault, several of the songs are structurally immature, and the band's sound screams potential, but the eventual catharsis of later albums such as It Still Moves and Z is missing. But this is a debut album (a naive and scattered one at that), and for that My Morning Jacket score extra pointsit is all here, dusty and unpolished, rough but overtly charming, a prequel to a modern day rock 'n' roll story which felt like a fable from the start. (www.mymorningjacket.com)

Author rating: 8.5/10

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Average reader rating: 7/10



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