Reviews

My Morning Jacket: Okonokos [DVD]

If you think Kentucky's transcendental rockers My Morning Jacket are a bit creepy, well, you're right. And wrong.


My Morning Jacket

Okonokos

MPAA rating: N/A
Label: RCA
UK Release Date: 2006-10-30
US Release Date: 2006-10-31
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

My wife walked out of a My Morning Jacket concert in October 2005. It wasn't really the music that put her off. She found the dark stage adorned with stuffed owls to be a bit spooky. She thought the band members themselves -- thrashing around as if they were being electrocuted, hair flying in their faces -- were creepy and a little pretentious, too. It was easy to see why she reacted the way she did, but she missed the point nonetheless. A big part of My Morning Jacket's brilliance, especially in concert, is their ability to fully embrace all the overblown, ridiculous rock'n'roll clichés, yet still get in on the joke.

In terms of presentation and aesthetics, singer/songwriter Jim James and his band hearken back to the '70s; a time when the unwashed, hirsute bohemian look was the result not of careful styling as much as the band members' lack of good personal hygiene skills; when band members could easily be mistaken for roadies and vice versa; when a taste for the mystical was met not with satiric jeering but with studious wonder. These traits, as much as their Kentucky address and taste for epic, often boogying, jam-filled songs about sweaty bars and sweatier passions, have earned My Morning Jacket the tag of "Southern Rockers".

But they deride that tag for the same reasons my wife didn't get the complete picture of their show. They've seen This Is Spïnal Tap and Almost Famous, and they're not those bands, either. James' lyrics, the atmospheric and electronic touches in their music; and, if you pay close attention, their stage presentation all establish them as a solidly 21st century act. Yes, they are passionate. Yes, they are respectful of the sacred traditions and myths of rock'n'roll. But if it suits you, they want you to laugh at their over-the-top aspects. They're laughing too, figuratively if not literally, and it's this combination of dead-serious introspection and humor, pompous posturing and near-embarrassing humility, dirty boogie and clean synthesizers, that makes My Morning Jacket such a unique, compelling, and dynamic band.

Okonokos, a concert film shot at the Fillmore in San Francisco in 2005 by veteran music video and live concert film director Sam Erickson, does its job perfectly. That's because My Morning Jacket do their job perfectly. With relatively new members on keyboards and guitars, the band is in peak form, chugging through a cross-section of their back-catalog as well as most of '05's Z as if they have nothing to lose or prove. And Erickson captures this definitive performance in a definitive manner, accurately recording what's happening on stage with a bare minimum of editing, effects, and other smoke and mirrors. By essentially putting himself out of the situation, Erickson allows the band's personality, atmosphere, and power to come charging through. At times Okonokos is so electric it should come with lightning rods.

The Southern angle is played to full effect, as the opening sequence takes place at a antebellum party at a Southern mansion, where the band (in full period dress) mingle with a houseful of merry-makers and stuffed, mounted animals. James is credited with this "concept/story", but the "story" part is being too generous by far. It's exactly what you'd expect from My Morning Jacket -- poking fun at their image while simultaneously using it to great effect -- yet it still puts you in a suitably warped mindset. Then, one partygoer leads an alpaca (!) into the woods…where he stumbles upon the concert.

The owls are there, too; while the ornate, foliage-strewn stage set suggests that the Fillmore has become either an enchanted forest or a Rainforest Café. From there on, it's my Morning Jacket's two-hour set, straight-up. The first three songs from Z are played in sequence -- a good choice, as they take an efficient trip through the band's varied range, from the easygoing, soulful "Wordless Chorus" to the full-on power chords of "Gideon". James' songs are what happens when a smart and gifted country boy discovers Elton John, Prince, and Pet Shop Boys. Though underpinned by folk and country rock, they never shy away from pop, blues, reggae, or grandeur. And, while many do tend to get blustery, each one contains at least a bit of soul and a lot of atmosphere, thanks to James' ultra-earnest voice and trademark reverb, neither of which are lost in the live mix. In fact, the performances are all almost completely faithful to the recorded versions, which is a little surprising for a band of such dexterity. Still, the power of the playing and the palpable physical energy are enough to thrill. Only an unnecessarily souped-up "The Way That He Sings" and the use of some "canned" backing vocals break the spell.

Any stage banter has been edited out. Drummer Patrick Hallahan and bassist Two Tone Tommy almost pull off the feat of getting through the entire show with their hair completely obscuring their faces. While James could very well get away with Bono-type posturing, he's far from it. He's a self-confessed Jim Henson fan, not surprising when you consider the way he rocks to and fro and bounces around is more Muppet than messiah. Eventually he brandishes his ironic-or-not Gibson Flying V guitar, and the picture of the music-worshipping kid going nuts in his bedroom is complete.

My Morning Jacket songs tend to finish big, and by the time the 10-plus-minute "Dondante" twists and turns to a close, you could be forgiven for wondering if another bombastic coda is really necessary (the answer as evidenced by the following "Run Thru": "Yes!"). All of that is forgotten, though, by the time you get to the stunning "Steam Engine", a highlight of It Still Moves and probably the highlight of the show. The joy, wonder, and sadness are broken down into mini-movements; and now James, with his bird's nest hair leaning over his black Gibson ES; evokes a younger, American Robert Smith; while the music slays you like the Cure used to do. This is followed by the juggernaut "Anytime", which shows how well the band can work their ethereal magic even within compacted power-pop; and, finally, My Morning Jacket's pièce de résistance, "Mahgeetah", which is like the best night of your life in six minutes.

Without any self-mythologizing "behind the scenes" stuff to get in the way, Okonokos is more than just a document. Like the best concert films, it's also an involving and entertaining experience. In presenting My Morning Jacket just as they are, imperfections and all, it makes the band seem that much stronger.

8

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less
Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image