(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Monday, April 27, 2009

DVD review - My Morning Jacket, Okonokos

My friend Tommy loaned this to me specifically for me to review it. I really appreciate any suggestions for stuff to review -- especially when it's something that the person has strong feelings about.

My Morning Jacket has a very interesting history. They started out as a sort of alt-country band out of Louisville, KY but they've evolved past that into popular indie rock stars. The progression reminds me a little bit of how Jeff Tweedy reinvented himself: leaving Uncle Tupelo to form Wilco and then taking that band well beyond its Americana roots. My Morning Jacket has some sonic links to Wilco, as well -- some of the vocal styling and lyrical turns sound like Tweedy and sometimes the guitars have that post-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot vibe.

Overall, though, My Morning Jacket has more of a British sound, especially with their arrangements. Many of the songs are intricately assembled with neat little simple pieces that fit together to create a more complex whole. Think of Radiohead or a less keyboardy version of Massive Attack. Add some Flaming Lips (especially the drum parts) and some of Nirvana's shoegazing intensity and a splash of Robert Pollard's writing style (Guided By Voices). Taken together, the music in Okonokos is an intense psychedelic take on progressive rock.

Okonokos is a stunning concert film but there's an odd little story bookending the show. At the beginning, we find ourselves outside a large house with a party in full swing. A man (Brandon Jones) arrives and joins the party. The costumes and set are all designed as a sort of Victorian pastiche. After failing to connect with the other guests, the man sees a (slightly glowing) alpaca and the two step outside. They hear some tones and follow the sounds to glowing lights in a nearby forest, thus joining the concert. In the first song and a few times later in the show, the man is sort of a visual touchstone. The camera revisits him to track his reaction to the music. At the end of the show, the man and alpaca leave and the man is attacked by a bear.

Sitting here afterwards, I'm not so sure I really appreciate this. The beginning section is whimsical but short and it gives a dadaistic slant to the early songs. The end, though, seems gratuitously violent and it really breaks the mood of the show. If the music (especially at the end) were more threatening, it might have worked better. At least it doesn't interfere with the music.

Visually, this concert DVD stands out. The lighting was designed by Marc Brickman, who's also worked with Bruce Springsteen and Pink Floyd. This was stunning. The lighting was always in service to the music. A great example was during It Beats 4 U, where the music is providing an interesting groove. The foreground is drenched in a deep blue, while the background is full of red, yellow, and orange. The back scrim of trees and vines is clear and all of the band members are backlit and outlined. It emphasizes some of the musical contrasts going on at the same time. Later, during One Big Holiday, the colors are intensely saturated and, combined with heavy strobe, they give the band an animated look. Prior to this, I've considered Phish to make good, innovative use of lighting but this was more complex and more tightly coupled to the music. Dondante could be used to teach the craft: the lighting almost drives the tempo and mood changes instead of reacting to them.

The editing was also significantly better than most concert DVDs. There was a balance between showing detailed action on the stage and pulling back to give a wider angle. All of the musicians get attention from the camera, which helps showcase the intricacy of how these pieces all come together. The Way That He Sings has some beautiful camera work. I'm sorry I can't find a better clip to share than this. In particular, I wish it had one of the songs I've already mentioned instead of Anytime.

All of this talk about lighting and editing, I shouldn't forget the music. These are all fairly powerful songs, played by a tight band in peak performance. I loved most of them and could easily walk through each one but I'll show a little discipline and pick a smaller set. If I could only pick one, it would be It Beats 4 U. Rounding it out to four, I'll add Off The Record, Dondante, and Run Through. It's hard to choose, though, because Jim James is a great writer and these are all excellent songs.

It Beats 4 U has a fairly basic beat but the drummer (Patrick Hallahan) throws in a quick little riff that adds complexity. This song is a showcase for the kind of arrangement I mentioned earlier: a simple arpeggiated guitar and simple keyboard parts contrast with with the manic intensity of the drums and bass. Vague vocals and a slightly drifting melody add another layer and the result is quite trippy. The amazing lighting is just icing at this point.

A drum machine starts Off The Record, with very stripped down vocals and bass. When the band kicks in, the rhythm is jerky but cool. The overall sound is like Wilco trying to play like the Clash. Frequent references to the Hawaii 5-0 theme become a regular leitmotif. Soon, the Clash gives way to a more psychedelic section, which plays behind Alpaca Man's weird flashback to the party. It comes down at the end with some keyboard. All in all, a pleasant roller coaster ride.

Dandante starts with a naked vocal, sometimes slipping up into falsetto. The guitar comes in faint and thin but it builds in volume and tempo. Then the song is overwhelmed in a wall of sound. Hypnotic vamping drives the sound while the lead guitar flails. Then things settle down and, as the guitar switches to a thick, tremolo-laden repetition, the saxophone comes in. I need a rest after this, it's so heavy.

But almost immediately, a sweet distorted guitar kicks in, starting Run Through. Maybe it's hinting at Eric Clapton playing Little Wing... Washes of sound from the second guitar arise with the first guitar surfing across the top. Eventually, this slips into a bass groove section that shifts the mood and finally ends in mind blowing feedback. But wait. It's not really over, the grind starts again, slower this time, and it drives to the real end of the song.

In general, I'm not a big proponent of concert DVDs. I'd rather have my memories of seeing the band or my own images to go with the music. But this is a clear exception to that rule. An outstanding DVD of a great band, it has everything: great visuals supporting intense music. Pair this up with some electric Kool-Aid or a Belgian strong golden ale like Gouden Carolus Tripel.


  1. WOW,you can write. as for the bear thing, it has something to do with the band in some way. one of there other cd's has a bear on it i think...........

  2. I'll have to research that;-) I was listening to the live CD of this show, which has a few extra tracks. It's great!