Okonokos – My Morning Jacket
If Z, My Morning Jacket’s acclaimed 2005 studio album, justifiably established the Kentucky-bred band as indie-darlings, than the live album Okonokos should just as easily cement the group’s reputation as one of the Bonnaroo era’s best touring bands. Sure, My Morning Jacket turns out great, catchy, single-length songs on record, but the quintet is equally capable of stretching their material into the unknown. And, while it’s certainly a stretch to describe the quintet as a jamband, in many ways My Morning Jacket plays by traditional jam-rock rules, mixing a number of decidedly American influences into a psychedelic package uniquely their own.
In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a headier concept than Okonokos itself, a feature film/double disc set which finds My Morning Jacket playing to an audience of magical creatures in a secluded forest (actually a crowd of post-college scenesters at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, but that’s besides the point). For two hours, the group runs through material from throughout their career, from the gentle folk of “Golden” to the indie/surf anthem “Off the Record,” complete with its trademark Hawaii Five-O teases. On certain tracks, like the 11 minute “Dondante,” the band opens up, offering a series of hair metal-by-hippie-rock guitar solos best described as hickster-rock. On others, like the dark, pulsating “It Beats 4 U,” My Morning Jacket gets psychedelic, molding the spooky, acid-drenched images available on Okonokos’ film counterpart into strong, tangible songs. No track sounds exactly likes its studio counterpart and, with the exception of crisp singles like “One Big Holiday” and “Mahgeetah” (which come off as worn), most sound better. In short, Okonokos is anything but a live hits package.
As expected, Okonokos draws heavily from Z, rolling out that album’s first three numbers in suite-like succession at the top of its first disc. But My Morning Jacket also offers several songs from its early days, most of which have been rearranged slightly for the group’s current incarnation. As they have on tour for some time, new keyboardist Bo Koster and guitarist Carl Broemel help rework older numbers like “I Think I Am Going to Hell” (off 1999’s The Tennessee Fire) and “Xmas Curtain” (from 2001’s At Dawn) into big, broad rockers, suitable for the ballrooms My Morning Jacket now regularly frequents. With more wiggle room, the group also extends their solos, doubling the length of guitar-fueled jams like “Stream Engine.”
But, in truth, what makes Okonokos so special isn’t its songs: it’s the album’s ability to create a specific mood, one simultaneously rooted in both triumph and loneliness. While Okonokos makes no specific reference to its film counterpart, My Morning Jacket’s music evokes the feeling of being lost in a forest or jungle, encountering strange beasts and, occasionally, unique time signatures and song structures (perhaps the impetus for Okonokos’ creative/Heart of Darkness motif).
And, while the band documented on Okonokos is billed as My Morning Jacket, the group is for all intents and purposes a personification of Jim James’ vision and, more importantly, his voice. Like Neil Young and Rick Danko before him, James is capable of using his voice as an emotional instrument, unique enough to be his own, but accessible enough to speak for others. His range is incredible, equal parts eerie (“Wordless Chorus”), frail (“Lowdown”) and commanding (“Mahgeetah”). In fact, if it wasn’t for a few strained vocal chords in the middle of “One Big Holiday” (perhaps foreshadowing the case of laryngitis which plagued the singer a month after recording this live album), it would be easy to mistake James’ vocals for studio tracks pasted onto his band’s live performances.
For longtime fans of the group’s work, or for the thousands of concertgoers who have seen My Morning Jacket at festivals like Bonnaroo, Coachella and High Sierra in recent years, none of this is new, but Okonokos still sounds refreshing. Most of it has to do with the band’s energy which, on this night, combines the loose, driven boogie of Led Zeppelin with the southern soul of Lynyrd Skynyrd. And, judging by Okonokos’ humorous accompanying booklet, the members of My Morning Jacket are clearly still having fun playing live music. So, while it’s airtight albums like Z and It Still Moves that initially won over critics and overly critical bloggers, it’s Okonokos which proves that this time, at least, they’re right.