There’s been an elephant in the room when writing about Jason Molina since at least 2011. He was an alcoholic. It destroyed his ability to tour, his music career, then his organs; it killed him this year. Almost nobody reading this knew the man in any real way; to dwell on the issue past acknowledging those facts, to pretend that we can speak with some insight as to how those facts are related to his music, seems unproductive and brutal to his family and other loved ones. Molina was always a bruising, raw, sometimes harrowing songwriter; it’s hard to listen to him now, and will be for a little while.
To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the early, underheard Songs: Ohia (Molina’s project for the first half of his career) EP Hecla & Griper, Secretly Canadian has reissued it, with bonus tracks, on vinyl for the first time. At first it’s a bit jarring to hear Molina’s voice from this early in his career again, and not just because he’s gone. As he aged his voice lost a bit of the keen it still has here in spades; it suits the short, sharp songs Molina was writing at the time. It’s more accurate to call Songs: Ohia a project than a band because Molina intentionally shifted personnel, usually with each record. Here he was working with Geof Comings, Jonathan Cargill, and Todd Jacops, all of whom almost exclusively show up in discography listings on… other Jason Molina albums. There are songs here, like the gorgeous “Defenders” and the curt “Advice to Aces”, that are just Molina and his guitar, but for the most part the trio of musicians provide sturdy, agile backing for these songs that seem comfortably lived in—refined instead of simple.
Hecla & Griper was named after the ships Arctic explorer William Parry used for three expeditions, both military ships turned to exploration instead (or maybe the bay named after them that splits the Northwest Territories and Nunavut). Despite the name, there’s nothing particularly chilly about the songs here; over a brief set of songs directed at “dear Albion”, a “rich kid”, and others, the band gallops as often as they pause and Molina seems a little less heartbroken (for the most part) than he is on many of his albums. “Pass”, “East Last Heart”, and “Darling” are more wise-ass rather than despairingly cynical. By some musicians’ standards the atmosphere here is gloomy; for Molina, it’s practically a party.
Two of the bonus tracks, demos for songs that would end up on next year’s Impala album, are maybe the best example of the warmth and strength of Molina and company’s work here. On Impala, the solo “One of Those Uncertain Hands” sounds fevered, and the faraway string drone haunting “Hearts Newly Arrived” helps undercut any momentum (to gorgeous effect). Here both songs are played by the full band, and the drums especially give them a surprisingly effective punch, ending the reissued EP on a strong note. They actually sound more fleshed out than the eventual album versions, if also a bit more conventional; I’d hate to lose the “finished” version of “Heart Newly Arrived”, but with both around this version turns it into one of Molina’s more stirring early songs. The two previously unreleased tracks, the gently nocturnal “Debts” and “Pilot & Friend”, balance the second side nicely; all four tracks bring Hecla & Griper to just over half an hour and fit perfectly with the original eight tracks.
It’s both misleading and kind of presumptuous to say that listening to Songs: Ohia is sad now. It was always sad music, but like all the best sad music it was about perseverance, not capitulation, about taking damage and turning it into something beautiful that might someday win over that damage. And as much as anyone touched by Molina’s intense, heartfelt work might want to believe they understand or identify with him one way or another, even he described treatment as “getting to deal with a lot of things that even the music didn’t want to”; this music is beautiful, and deeply personal, and deeply touching. But that wasn’t because of Jason Molina’s damage. It was because of his talent. This reissue is just another chance to appreciate how much that talent is missed.