Excellent songwriters toiling away in relative obscurity is nothing new, but in the case of My Morning Jacket and Songs: Ohia, it feels like more of a travesty than usual. The Louisville, Kentucky-based My Morning Jacket is known for a lonesome sound that seems destined to be heard in the dark, on stereos surrounded by empty beer bottles at three a.m. Songs: Ohia is the brainchild of Jason Molina, whose vocal and instrumental approach bear a striking resemblance to Palace/Palace Brothers/Palace Music/Bonnie Prince Billy master-mind Will Oldham. It might seem strange to throw the two acts together on a split EP, but the reality is that they both share a lot of common ground: emotional anguish, driven artistic purpose, and a sense of atmospherics that just won't quit.
My Morning Jacket start things off with four of the EP's five songs, and immediately show that there's no shortage of talent in their toolbox. The band's country leanings, though, are but a faint shadow on these densely packed songs. "O is the One that is Real" kicks off with a snare drum and a killer guitar line. It also shows an immediate kinship to Songs: Ohia in its shadowy sound and heartfelt vocals. Bandleader Jim James sings, "Always leave your televisor on / Always give your answers by the phone / If you're hurt he wants to feel it / If you've money he's your dealer / If you're ready for him I don't want to see it." Then a chorus of "Oh. O is the one that is real" kicks in, aided by a light synth line. James then repeats the lines, but the effect isn't redundant. His voice between a wail and a moan, James creates an almost hypnotic litany of despair before kicking things into the next gear for the outro, an emo-like blend of screams, frenzied guitars, and clashing instruments.
"How Do You Know" feels like a church service as heard through a demerol haze. A chorus of voices drones before James comes in with a falsetto reminiscent of Neil Young; the rest of the band pulls off a sweeping arrangement that sounds like a combination of alt-country and Al Green. It's a song like this that makes the comparisons to Young and bands like the Flaming Lips so inevitable. My Morning Jacket's arrangements are slyly aggressive; they insinuate themselves into your head before you know that they've even battered down your defenses. Few bands since the Cure have done such a masterful job of adding sweep and majesty to pain.
To a lesser extent, "Come Closer" pulls off the same trick, but it's nowhere near as strong as the first two cuts. It sways in time to James' gentle falsetto, but it has the feel of a band receding into the darkness, as if to say "we exhausted ourselves on the first two cuts." "Come Closer" is wispy and ethereal, and would mark a fine segue to the Songs: Ohia portion of the disc if it weren't for "The Year in Review", which is apparently the disc's three My Morning Jacket songs played with the fast-forward button held down. It does nothing to further the mood set by James and company, but it does at least clear the way for the Songs: Ohia cut.
It might initially seem unfair that Songs: Ohia gets only one song to My Morning Jacket's four, but "Translation" clocks in at over 10 minutes, so it asserts its presence. It's textbook Songs: Ohia, with Molina crooning over a sleepy arrangement that sounds so dreamy you're afraid it might dissipate once it ends. "Translation" doesn't come close to capturing the same power as top-notch Molina compositions like "Lioness" or "Nervous Bride", but it provides a perfect roadmap for the Songs: Ohia experience. It also contains what on paper looks like a heaven-sent pairing of indie hermits, since Will Oldham actually provides backing/harmony vocal duties. It sounds like he's about 20 feet away and at the bottom of an emotional well, so while it's not exactly a duet, Oldham's vocals certainly provide a spooky layer to the song.
All in all, this split EP acts as a good introduction to both bands. While the My Morning Jacket songs sound a bit murkier than the band's usual work, "O is the One that is Real" is one of group's finest songs to date. Also, while the Songs: Ohia track doesn't hold any revelations, it's a great snapshot of the niche that Jason Molina has carved out for himself. Neither band is phoning it in, by any stretch (or even hoarding good material for their own proper releases), and you'll be hard-pressed to find a better sampler of sad, twilight-tinged music.