Jason Molina was a man who sang with vulnerability, passion, and eventually power. He emerged in the lo-fi, indie-rock heyday that fell on the far side of the millennium, singing in a folkie quaver that seemed at first to sound sort of like Neil Young and would later be more accurately compared to his contemporaries such as Will Oldham and Ryan Adams.
But, ultimately, Molina—recording at first under the moniker Songs: Ohia and later as Magnolia Electric Co.—might be the voice others are properly compared to. At least we can say this: his 2003 Songs:Ohia record Magnolia Electric Co. was a great one, a classic even, in an era when classic records rarely sounded this timeless, this honest and authentic.
Before Magnolia Electric Co., Molina had already made more than a half-dozen recordings. But this disc was a pivot point. His band afterward would change its name to Magnolia Electric Co., and on this record the sound of his music lurched forward and backward at once. The opening track, “Farewell Transmission”, starts with a big, blues-bent pedal steel hook, but then the band kicks in with big-guitar, classic rock power. Molina sings a long set of lyrics about a decaying community haunted by death, but one where hearts beat and resurrection is distinctly possible despite it all. If you don’t find optimism strictly from the lyrics (which is understandable), you very well might find it in the steady churn of the groove, with shimmers of beauty as prominent as indie edge: stacked up harmony vocals, a bed of Wurlitzer electric piano, that pedal steel artful around the edges.
The lyric concerns of Molina on this record aren’t straightforward. They can alternate between hardscrabble reality and myth, for example. “John Henry Split My Heart” not only evokes the steel driver of folk legend, but it also evokes the cross-country open road of “66 Highway” and the romantic trope of a broken or “split” heart. The narrator has his heart cleaved by John Henry so that Molina can “pay this band” with half and keep the other half for a future gig. It’s “magnolia” along a rail that tells Molina “Don’t come back.” The album closer (“Hold on, Magnolia”) brings back much of the same imagery. Now the narrator is telling “Magnolia” to hold on to “that great highway moon” while he hears “that lonesome whistle whine”. More railroads, more broken hearts. Molina mixes and matches classic American road imagery, feelings of loneliness and departure, and a distant kind of hope. “Almost Was Good Enough” states repeatedly, “almost no one makes it out,” yet the narrator states that he he made it out. Almost.
The sound of Molina’s band evokes this menu of lyric elements with care and subtlety. “I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost” ends each verse with a spooky set of harmonized “oooh-oooh-oo-oo-oo-ooooooh"s that are traced by the pedal steel, the same twangy sounds that start off the country groove of “Just Be Simple”. Songs tend to shift from whisper quiet sections to tearing full-band screams. The band sounds utterly huge on bonus track “The Big Game is Every Night”, where the fiddle moans high and up top while a booming bass tone anchors everything with emphatic slowness. They also get big on a down-tempo honky-tonk number such as “The Old Black Hen”, which is thick with country music fiddle and twang, only to be punctuated by ripping guitar.
That song is one of two in the center of the original album that are not sung by Molina. “The Old Black Hen” is given a deep-voiced country sound by Lawrence Peters, an incantation of a “bad luck lullaby” over a slow waltz rhythm that is cloaked in a sense of churning determination. Next up is “Peoria Lunch Box Blues”, sung by Scout Niblett, who puts across the lyrics with plaintive feminine ache. It’s not an insult to say that these two tracks give the listener a pleasant relief from Molina’s warbling intensity as a singer. The terrain seems different in these songs, still dark but more like stories we have a distance from, if only because the singer is less common than Molina.
The tenth anniversary edition gives us Molina’s demos for all these songs, including his versions of the songs he didn’t ultimately sing on. He sounds great on these songs, accompanied only by his guitar, but the power of the final versions is never in doubt.
Heard from a ten-year distance, Magnolia Electric Co. has a quality of being a monument, something big on the horizon up ahead. It’s old enough to evoke Dylan, Neil Young, Woody Guthrie and new enough to seem like a recording you haven’t fully absorbed yet. The plaintive quality of bonus track “Whip Poor Will” is as fine as the grinding rock of “Farewell Transition”, and that’s what let’s Molina’s best record stake its claim to permanence. While Magnolia has a clear mood and signature sound, it contains a world of variation as well. Like a fine novel, this disc keeps its eye focused, even as it sprawls out some. It’s a balancing act and good stroll in the neighborhood, a journey across the state and a long night chatting with your brother.
The long story-song “The Big Game is Every Night” was not on the original release but was released a while ago as a completed track with full band. The non-album cut shows that Molina himself heard Magnolia Electric Co. as a piece of music set right in the middle of US history as well as right in the middle of rock history. “It’ll get so quiet when this record ends”, he starts off. “Let me be me honestly” is his plea, but he sets up the drama of song as a football game: “Now light the field for the big game tonight.” And while he evokes legendary football players Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry, he also imagines a “strike” from “Mark Twain to Thomas Jefferson” and then “Luke the Drifter to Zimmerman, line drive.” “Luke the Drifter” was an alias of Hank Williams when he was singing preaching songs and, of course, Zimmerman is our old friend Bob Dylan.
And Molina sees himself that way too, as a preacher of individual tales and furtive moralities. He ends the first song here by repeating a pleading of the word “listen.”
And by the end of Magnolia Electric Co. we are listening with urgent, personal interest. Jason Molina’s songs reach across the country, across our history, but like out best art they are deeply individual as well. Is this one of the best records made in the new millennium so far? Ten years out may be too little distance to say, but then again it’s hard to imagine ever having much distance from this beautiful set of songs, an album that pulls us as close as the best music dare.
- "Farewell Transmission (Demo)" Soundcloud