My Morning Jacket – Ch. 1: The Sandworm Cometh / Ch. 2: Learning

My Morning Jacket
Ch. 1: The Sandworm Cometh / Ch. 2: Learning

The hackneyed, bullshit phrase that critics usually throw out for double albums/releases goes something like this: “If they’d cut the filler and made a single album, this one could’ve been a classic.” That statement doesn’t apply to My Morning Jacket’s two odds and sods compilations, Ch. 1: The Sandworm Cometh and Ch. 2: Learning for two reasons. First, there’s not a great album here, any way you slice it, and second, these sorts of collections are godsends to fans, and trimming the fat – no matter how flabby it is – only subtracts from the purpose of these albums. Compiling the B-sides, soundtrack contributions, demos and covers, recorded throughout the band’s career thus far, these discs hit a shitload of roadbumps but remain interesting, charming, and impressive throughout.

By now, anyone with even a passing knowledge of this band knows of Jim James’s propensity for treating his Neil Young-on-helium voice with a country mile of reverb. As such, the cover songs are some of the most interesting tracks on these discs, as James’s unique voice and incredible range allow him to turn any random song into a de-facto MMJ track. Most impressive is Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Rocket Man.” James sounds like he’s singing from some lonely, rhinestone-studded ring of Saturn, and the song’s wistful lyrics float around in the atmosphere. Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone” is another fine choice, as James turns the neo-soul kissoff into a slow lament. Less successful are Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” and The Pet Shop Boys’s “West End Girls,” neither of which stray far enough from their original arrangements to take advantage of James’ unique approach.

The band’s batting average isn’t as strong with the other rare material. The band’s album cuts, some of which are rehashed as alternate takes or live tracks, fall flat. A demo of “Death is the Easy Way,” inarguably one of the band’s worst songs, is surprisingly inferior to the studio version, and a “Be-mixed” version of “Evelyn” also falls flat. A live version of “I Will Be There When You Die” fares slightly better, but very few of the previously released songs are worth their salt.

The previously unreleased and rare tracks are hit and miss. The off-kilter strum of “I Won’t Cry” gives it a surprisingly old-time vibe, but the lo-fi folk of “Isobella” flashes potential and nothing more. “I Just Wanted to Be Your Friend” is one of the strongest melodies the band has ever pressed, and “Downtown” smolders in a hissy ashtray, but “Time Never Gets” kills any momentum those tracks build. The organ grind of “Somebody Cares About the Maestro” breaks up the getting-old guitar-and-voice formula, hinting at the sorts of possibilities that might exist if the band ever expanded its sound, but it’s a little too … grinding.

It’s hard to fault these albums though, as their purpose was never to be a coherent statement or even a high-quality release. Rather, they were conceived in order to expose the band’s fans (or at least those without the time/means to collect to MMJ’s scattered catalog). As such, they are nearly perfect, offering up enough cover songs and otherwise unheard material to keep even modest followers interested. The re-hashing of album tracks is the biggest downer here, but they are mercifully dispersed. The band’s devotion to its fans has always been impressive, and this is the sort of gift that a loyal fanbase deserves.