Outside The Lines

My Morning Jacket (Darla Records)

By Tim Roberts

At dawn fishing boats cast off and head out for the day's catch. Trash-barrel fires on city street corners are left to die as flaky embers. Demons slither back down into the open pits from which they were hatched. Vampires close their coffin lids as school kids pry open heavy eyelids and plead for just five more minutes from alarm-clock mom. Dawn is the most consistent evidence of the cycles of life. It bleeds into the night and steals its power. Dawn speaks only one word: again. It represents a new chance.

Appropriately, then, At Dawn is the title of the second release from Louisville's My Morning Jacket.

This follow-up to 1999's The Tennessee Fire contains the hallmark My Morning Jacket sound: simple rhythms rooted in strumming acoustic guitar, electric guitars on slow reverb, lead and backing vocals so full of echo they sound as if they're calling up from the depth of a lonely heart, lyrics that alternate between surreal pleasure and a brackish despondency. There's also country twang and folk harmonica, some disharmonic experimental fingerpicking, some pleasant pop, a touch of blues, and even a Christmas song. All of this makes At Dawn an ethereal stew of Americana music. An entrancing oracle that asks more questions of its listeners than it answers.

Lead singer and songwriter Jim James makes the band's message and purpose clear in the opening title track. "Forget the papers, forget your musical dreams," the antagonists demand. "But that's when my knife rises," James states, "Their life ends and my life starts again." The song acts as a preface to the rest of the recording when James sings, "We start this time with open ears."

Open ears won't be disappointed with what follows. The band spreads a tiny bit of the dawn's sunshine with the relaxing pop bounce of "Lowdown" and "The Way He Sings," and "Just Because I Do." James also takes a pair of acoustic solos back to back with "Hopefully" and "Bermuda Highway," then the rest of the band joins him as they blast through the country blues of "Honest Man." It's the perfect from-the-gut soundtrack for a guy who's driving home down a dark back road, his heart bitch-slapped by the blonde at the roadhouse when she dumps him after a Dockers model strides in, fresh from his flashy SUV and hands her a smooth pickup line. In the night sky above, the stars droop in sympathy.

The despondency continues with "If It Smashes Down," but takes a slight upturn with "I Needed it Most," a murky love song that contains one of the strangest romantic lines in modern songwriting, "When dark touches your skull, aw, baby / You can dump that on me."

You can count the number of bold bands from Louisville on just one hand. My Morning Jacket is one of them. They are bold in the sense that they are unafraid of taking the framework of basic songwriting and production and coercing them into broader, more risky shapes. They could play it safe and make a normal, slick production: add reverb where it sounded cool, tighten and pitch-correct the harmonies, do the country songs by the book. A produce-by-numbers recording would be nice, and material from other performers does work well in that type of production. But My Morning Jacket's methods and sounds just cannot be constricted to outlines or formula.

Put another way: with At Dawn, My Morning Jacket has colored outside the lines - way outside the lines and onto the next kid's desk.