My Morning Jacket

Okonokos

(ATO/RCA; 2006)

By Clayton Purdom | 30 October 2007

Okonokos is the first live record by The Greatest Fucking Live Band On The Planet, but it’s a solid ten points shy of last year’s first live record by a just-pretty-good live band. Both Okonokos and Wilco’s Kicking Television feature set lists culled from their respective band’s two most recent releases, and both feature clean, robust production (arguably appropriate for a live recording) and dynamic pacing (of paramount importance for a live recording). Both go on for a little too long, in a good way. Both prominently feature the stunned roar of an audience. Both have big guitar solos. Both reinterpret the respective band’s catalogue, either through rearrangement (“Xmas Curtain”) or recontextualization.

But…My Morning Jacket is The Greatest Fucking Live Band On The Planet, and Wilco is not. And the Wilco one is better. What gives?

Well, technically, I give. I taketh away, too. Reviewing a live record is a tricky proposition, because it’s not just the songs being critiqued (a dense enough task) but also the “performance,” or at least the outsider’s aural interpretation of what being at the performance would’ve been like. These problems are conflated and exacerbated by the second commandment of rock and roll, that the live show is the holiest altar of all. This is why “scenes” exist, built of people who recognize this infinite truth and devote themselves to the proliferation and observation of it. This is also why punk rock exists, and why every now and then on a sweaty Thursday evening a local band (hello, Nelsonville, Ohio’s Men of Gentle Birth!) puts on a show more revelatory and transporting than “real bands” ever do (hello, Tonic!).

Exactly what gives the live performance such transfixing, metaphysical force is something I’ve spent entire sweaty Thursday nights contemplating in between shots of Old Crow and arguments about wrestling. And in order to explain what I’ve thus deduced, I’m going to have to talk Big. In the live setting, the music being created in front of you delineates itself more cleanly, so that the individual components become clear. You glimpse through the speakers at the music (and the musicians) and are confronted with that evergreen, irreducible idea: that sound coming together in certain patterns and arrangements is reason enough to wake up in the morning. It’s a provocative thing, seeing music this way and renewing that unbreakable idea, but it’s a much truer manner of experiencing rock and roll than, say, bumping it from computer speakers. As just one fraction of a roaring crowd, your attention is rapt, so that along with the dozen or thousand others you are immersed in the intricacies of the sounds.

It’s here where My Morning Jacket’s live show draws such unbridled force. They have created a music of swooning lows and crushing lows, of rapturous longs and implosive stops, of riotous, shuddering highs. They smoke post-rock big and Louisville home, streaked with mud and traveling to the sun. As a live entity, they perform without flaw, so that the character and depth of their music comes into crystalline focus. Held unswerving and played with maximum volume, this is music that is traditional, sure, but capable of conjuring dangerous emotive power. Were they malicious, they would harness this power and sell it to the government as mind control. They dominate a venue through sheer force and stamina. This is why they are The Greatest Fucking Live Band On The Planet.

But this is also what dooms Okonokos. There is exactly one way to listen to this record: loudly, intently, and entirely. Either give it two hours on full blast or put something else on. If you can’t discern the exact pattern of the thudding bass embellishments that ground Jim James’ hysteric, hysterical outro on “Wordless Chorus,” it’s not loud enough. If you let your mind drift on the serpentine first four minutes of “Dondante,” so that the thick thundercrashes of guitar a minute later jar you out of a lull, you are not paying close enough attention, and the volume needs increased. If you do not hear in the trilling guitars of “O Is the One That Is Real” a reiteration of the pulsing, percussive beginning, then you are not taking my advice adequately. Again: turn the fucker up.

Otherwise, you’re robbing the album not just of its potency but its very appeal at all. If listened to in passing, Okonokos, lacking the proper albums’ lyrical emphasis and delicate production, grates; it overextends, another solo after the other, “Mahgeeta” running forever, too many epics next to each other, and so on. Unlike Kicking Television, which, in its careful reproduction of Wilco’s studio trickery produced the band’s definitive statement, My Morning Jacket’s finest songs aren’t given the treatment they need. That chilling, gorgeous moment in “Steam Engine” when James goddamns “these shaky knees” is barely even a moment on Okonokos, but it forms the vulnerable, humane core of It Still Moves (2003). Kicking Television managed to be the most appropriate Wilco record for almost any situation, smoking pot at noon or eating dinner with the family; Okonokos is appropriate for, like, solo roadtrips.

And, like I’m saying, in that context it fucking destroys. Yesterday on the four hour trip to Cleveland I almost ran my dad’s station wagon off I-77 during “Run-Thru.” I have qualms with the record -- no covers? -- but they are the qualms of a convert, an acolyte, a person who wrote this. Most of you probably aren’t, and Okonokos isn’t going to change that. That’s for the proper records to do. This is a fans-only document, but it’s one of roaring, immutable spirit.