My Morning Jacket

Acoustic Citsuoca: Live at the Startime Pavilion Oct. 31st

(ATO; 2004)

By Scott Reid | 27 April 2004

The difference between My Morning Jacket the live act and My Morning Jacket the recording group is, as anyone who has experienced both can attest, quite a miraculously different thing. I’ve known people that absolutely adore their records (usually Tennessee Fire and At Dawn moreso) and find their intense live show to be the work of a completely different band, one which started to emerge on record with last year’s mammoth It Still Moves. And yet I’ve met just as many people that feel the opposite; that their live show, as one described to me once as “dude, where the fuck did that come from,” is far more interesting than their records, which had been predominantly structured around lead singer/songwriter Jim James’ acoustic epics. For most, the only things tying the two beings together where the frameworks of the songs and James’ unbelievable voice.

This duality not only made My Morning Jacket that much more of an intriguing act, but it also created an instant demand for some sort of live document—an official soundboard quality release of the band’s show. Though it would still pale in comparison to the real thing, as all live albums do I suppose, it would at least give their fans unable to catch their shows or find the many bootlegs flying about an idea of just how much this group transforms when they hit the stage (flying V’s and twirling hair at a show by the band that wrote “I Will Be There When You Die?”). Moreover, for those of us that have been lucky enough, it would be something to remind us just how great those versions of “Heartbreakin’ Man,” “The Way That He Sings” and “Run Thru” really were.

And so, you’d figure the announcement of a live EP would finally solve this problem but, well, it doesn’t. Which isn’t to say that this isn’t a great release, but what the group has chosen to give us with Acoustic Citsuoca —if you couldn’t already figure this out from the title—are five songs that showcase the band performing one of their several shorter, acoustic shows on their last major tour (it’s too bad they didn’t choose to release the Toronto in-store, as it had a rare performance of “By My Car” and an unreal cover of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”). So while we do get a twenty-five minute reminder of James’ songwriting talent, what we don’t get, even still, is a document of My Morning Jacket the live group. In fact, the majority of the EP (only “The Bear” and “Sooner” are exceptions) features just Jim James. As such, Acoustic Citsuoca falls much closer to what you’d expect from solo acoustic versions of five songs that, despite the group’s usual tendency to change things up, don’t venture far from their recorded equivalents.

While on the opening tracks— Tennessee Fire’s finest, “The Bear,” and “Sooner,” one of the group’s better EP cuts (from 2002’s Chocolate and Ice)—we do get some input from the group, it’s very subtle and lax, playing into the delicate acoustic setting rather than enhancing it. Even “The Bear’s” normally thundering percussion seems forcefully tamed, losing the kind of power it has on record or even in their usual live setting. All the same, James’ voice quickly pulling the song together and, after his rough opening verse, soars over the minimal arrangement, bringing the track to its climax, almost as stirring here as it is on record.

The bass-heavy relaxed groove of “Sooner” quickly follows and, though a fine addition to the EP (this version has a great vibe that isn’t nearly as accentuated on Chocolate and Ice), I can think of at least fifteen other songs that would absolutely kill it on a short release like this — most significantly “Strangulation!,” “I Will Be There When You Die,” “If It Smashes Down” and “Old Sept. Blues.”

“Bermuda Highway,” often rightfully lauded as one of James’ best songs, is one of the more obvious choices. But the version here—the first of the three solo acoustic renditions by James that close out the EP—is one of the best I’ve heard from him; his vocals, drenched in as much echo as we’d expect, manages to sound both vulnerably intimate and powerfully moving. “Golden” and “Hopefully” follow and are the real gems of this release; both manage to ever so slightly usurp their recorded versions—especially “Golden,” which turns almost unbearably affecting by the end of its somber romanticism: “And you, you always told me/ No matter how long it holds me/ If it falls apart or makes us millionaires/ You’ll be right here forever/ We’ll go through this thing together/ And on heaven’s golden shore we’ll lay our heads.”

Meanwhile, “Hopefully,” one of At Dawn’s best, is kept at a bare whisper. Once again he pulls out his falsetto, this time sputtering out near the end of the melody, before wrapping up the relatively short set with a reprise of, much like “Golden,” an unapologetically romantic chorus: “Hopefully it occurs to me/ That’s there one thing that I can’t stand/ That’s the thought of one single day/ Without your head in my hands.” It, along with “Golden,” hits with as much sincerity as any other version you’re liable to hear, recorded or not.

It’s probably impossible to really get what kind of control James is able to exert over his audience in in a live setting, whether he has a full band behind him or not, but this EP will certainly bring most of MMJ’s fans closer to understanding, and is a fine addition to the band’s catalogue, even without the inclusion of any new songs or rare covers (you don’t realize how badly I want this man to cover Neil Young’s “Pocahontas,” but that’s a whole ‘nother story). Yet, as nice as Acoustic Citsuoca is, it also just reminds us how badly the group needs to release a proper concert recording, one that captures their relentless live show and reveals a side of the group that is barely even alluded to here. Knowing that the transformation seems as easy for the group as the flick of a switch makes it all the more incredible to hear, but after experiencing it, a collection like this sounds like an encore instead of the main set.