By Mark Guarino
Louisville’s My Morning Jacket is routinely compared to bands from the past and present that present inner emotions and frailties against a backdrop that stretches wide and stands tall: Pink Floyd, U2, Wilco and Radiohead.
However complimentary, the parallels fizzle out from there. Over five albums, My Morning Jacket has become one of those rare bands that fail categorization. You can try, but you’ll always fall short. The songs, incorporating flashes of Southern rock and electronic, seem to inhabit a different orbit, one that does not necessarily follow the neat rules of songcraft but instead find a heartbeat in grandeur. The unruly beards the bandmembers wear and their long stretches of instrumentation have aligned them with many jam bands. However, despite routinely sharing the stage with them at festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo, My Morning Jacket is not finding their way as they go along, either during a song or on the career path. This is a band with a distinct sound and supersized ambition.
“Okonokos” (ATO/RCA), recently released, is a testament to their drive. Not only does it happen to be one of rock’s cliched hallmarks — the double live album — it breaks the rules by featuring mostly songs from its two albums, “Z” and “It Still Moves,” that were released in the past two years. (A companion DVD featuring the same concert is available separately.)
However familiar those songs may still be for fans, on this live album they sound fleshier and primed for bigger things. The first three songs are the same that kick off “Z” but they are filled with more suspense and reach taller peaks. “We are the innovators/they are the imitators,” lead singer and songwriter Jim James sings on the opening song (“Wordless Chorus”), clearly defining what follows.
His singing is the music’s brute force. Slurpy, big and raw, the words frequently escape definition, but the emotion power is frequently shattering. James bends through octaves, his voice soaring, often cracking, revealing the vulnerabilities that lie underneath. In songs like “It Beats 4 U,” with the band charging behind him, James’ voice soars with intensity. Although it has the ability to howl at high peaks, he counters the bombast with simmering moments that are lush “(I Will Sing You Songs”) and darkly frail (“I Think I’m Going to Hell”).
The band’s complex architecture of sounds has gotten craftier in recent years too. “Anytime,” despite its massive scope, manages to stick to a simpler structure, with pop elements like sighing background vocals complimenting James’ whoops.
“Okonokos” was recorded at the Fillmore in San Francisco, one of the nation’s hallowed rock venues since the days when it served as the headquarters for the Grateful Dead. If there’s a drawback to these two discs, it’s that the interaction of playing live is minimal. Strip away some of the crowd noise (surprisingly, audience chatter is mixed very low to almost none), and this could be another studio album. And who wants that?
You do. For first-time converts to My Morning Jacket, this is the album to get. For long-time fans, these 21 tracks are reminders how explosive a live performance can be and how exciting it is when the band can seek, and then maintain, grandeur.