The Grain Silo Sound
In 2001, My Morning Jacket's ascension into the indie pantheon was a long way off. Long before they became rock festival mainstays, soundtrack standbys, and Grammy nominees, the Kentuckian combo were just a bunch of old pals jamming in an abandoned grain silo on a farm outside of Shelbyville.
That grain silo was, in the evolution of the band, both totemic and functional: a glorious symbol of the band's brand of rural, Southern rock, and a source of spiraling reverb, that let leader Jim James sound his voice out to echoing infinity, and the band's four-part harmonies to take on a mystical effect.
As My Morning Jacket slowly climbed their way up from obscurity —one of the last era of bands (like The National or The Walkmen) to do so before the rise of instantaneous blog hype— it was the 'grain silo sound' that became their calling card; and went on to be hugely influential on outfits like Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses, and Lord Huron.
My Morning Jacket debuted the grain silo sound on the slow, sad, sparse The Tennessee Fire in 1999; and the album played, in many ways, like a James solo record with deft touches of added instrumentation and flowering vocal harmonies. It'd be on 2001's At Dawn where the band took an evolutionary step: its 74 minutes and fondness for rocking betraying their increasing tendencies towards jam-band live shows; and its wild shifts in tone —from brittle balladry to boogie and back— would presage that era in which My Morning Jacket would become a kind of rock'n'roll jukebox, jumping across genres with joyous abandon.
But, where later My Morning Jacket records oft play as pastiche, At Dawn never does; feeling like the coherent work of a self-contained band. Where The Tennessee Fire was downcast and spartan, At Dawn has no qualms chasing big, yearning, pining, sentimental, over-the-top peaks.
"Phone Went West" rises, falls, and swells up again across seven lighters-in-the-air minutes, with effects-draped guitar frippery and gurgling building as James hollers "there'll be a knock at your back door" until he voices catches with the emotion. "Lowdown" is a bright, elegant, joyfully-melodic, love-dowsed pop-song whose sing-song sentiments —"chancin'/glance in/sho' nuff mood for romancin'"— play as a post-argument apology framed with unending positivity; the whole thing tipping slightly towards the silly as it's dedicated to "love dawg," but only seeming all the more sincere for it.
"At Dawn" and "Death Is the Easy Way" come closer to the rough-hewn balladry of The Tennessee Fire, the album's title-track slowly rising out of a milling atmosphere evoking morning mist and train cars rattling along rural tracks; the latter a warm tribute to both an easy friend and to the very conviction of living.
"At Dawn" introduces both the grain silo's wild natural reverb, and the band's fondness for environmental sounds. On "Hopefully," both are taken to their natural conclusion: James' letting his voice ring out loud and proud over simple strums, deft notes of ebow'd guitar, and blow melodica; the doors of the silo thrown open, and the summer crickets chirping. Americana, in any iteration, is often about summoning that experience of just being out on the land; and At Dawn inhabits its landscape; rising with the morning sun then staying up all night, playing and singing and crying, hearts forever worn on sleeves.
Record Label: Darla
Release Date: April 6, 2001