“Does everybody remember the Foghat rule? Your fourth album should be double-live,” Bob Odenkirk, in Kiss makeup, instructed his pupils at rock school, Yo La Tengo, in a hilarious skit of a music video once upon a time. My Morning Jacket’s double-live album, Okonokos, is their fifth album, not their fourth, but still, those sort of unwritten rules of ROCK seem to run in My Morning Jacket’s blood. As a band they perennially adopt the stance of rock ‘n’ roll warriors, out to take over the world. In concert they attack their instruments ferociously, long hair swinging in front of their faces. They play their songs loud and proud, thriving off the larger-than-life aspects of playing music for people. They seem to remember how it felt as a kid when a rock band captured your imagination, made you dream, and they try and embody some of that spirit themselves. Certainly they get why the Foghat principle joke is funny, but they also get a kick out of that sort of musical excess, out of living it up onstage, acting like (or being?) the best, baddest, most kick-ass band that ever was.
So yes, of course My Morning Jacket has released a double-live album, and of course they’ve made it big and bold, exemplifying the greater history and mythology of the Live Album. It was recorded last year in San Francisco at the Fillmore, an iconic venue. Though the performance features songs from throughout their career, the live album has been given a vague concept of its own, that of the fanciful land of Okonokos. The show itself included a stage set to match this concept, one designed by a movie set designer. And the album is actually even bigger than your standard double-album. It’s two CDs, or four LPs, if you get the limited-edition vinyl ‘box set’ version, which included an extra side of music. And then there’s the DVD version, which also is going to be screened theatrically in limited release in October. This is a band that thinks and acts big, and this live album’s as big as they come.
The scope of the music is huge, too; it’s not just the concept and presentation. Where their first two albums of moody, transformative country drew incessant Neil Young comparisons, their major-label debut It Still Moves had such a consistent, well-formed rock sound that critics started talking about them as Southern rock. And then their atmospheric, complex fourth album Z made those critics switch gears and start calling them the American Radiohead. None of those are true, and all are. One thing Z confirmed is that the band is capable of almost anything, as they switch from high-powered pop-rock into spaced-out reggae, to expansive Western-desert-type exploratory jams, and on and on. All of that is captured on Okonokos, an album that contains music from throughout their career and impressively demonstrates how well they’re able to translate those songs into a live setting.
Okonokos‘s structure is perfect for a live album — when the songs trip off into another world, they soon rock brightly back to life, often within the same song. The songs are stretched out, but without losing any of their impact. In fact, the impact of every hook, note, and solo is only accentuated. The band hammers each note exactly right, with absolute toughness but also sensitivity, so it isn’t bombastic but still kicks hard. James’ voice soars but also turns ragged, as the music flies light but also punches the audience in the face. An extra dose of intensity is added to songs, to keep the feeling of surprise, and those intense moments the audience is expecting — like on “One Big Holiday”, their most overtly rocking song — are delivered even better than promised.
The first disc of Okonokos opens with the first three songs off Z, in order, and the order suits the songs as well here as on the album itself. Then the band steps back through the previous albums, returning to Z here and there. It Still Moves‘ “I Will Sing You Songs” seems especially slow and dreamy at first, with James lingering on lyrics like “just don’t make it last any longer than it has to,” like a playful tease, before the whole band inevitably rocks the song up right. On At Dawn‘s “The Way That He Sings”, they take an instrumental break and use it as a hook to ride, as the audience claps along to the drummer’s determined rhythm and the guitarists bang on their guitars in a way that makes me imagine them striking a windmill stance.
The second disc starts off looser and mellower in tone, as it should, before knocking the mood back in an energetic direction near the end. The 11-minute “Dondante” offers a slow drift, leading into nine minutes of “Run Thru” that get increasingly further from Earth. Soon they’re back in the land of (somewhat) shorter songs that leave melodies and mysteries behind — like a brilliant version of “Xmas Curtain” and a truly haunted “I Think I’m Going to Hell,” the lone track here off their debut album The Tennessee Fire — but after that is a blistering, slow-burning version of “Steam Engine” that ends in a drum solo, a necessity for a rock band’s live album. There’s more of course, leading up to an album-ending version of “Mahgeeta” where the band sounds as sharp as they did when they started.
With each passing year My Morning Jacket seem more like one of the most powerful live bands around. Okonokos does nothing but reinforce that impression.. or solidify it even, by leaving in aural concrete a evidence of their capacity to rock, to float, to wring emotion from each note while ensuring fire pumps through the veins of every listener.