Ryan Adams might get all the press for releasing three records this year, but Magnolia Electric Co.’s string of releases shouldn’t go unnoticed. After apparently closing the book on Songs: Ohia in 2003 with the transitionally titled Magnolia Electric Co., Jason Molina and company hit 2005 running at full speed. Starting off with, of all things, a live album (Trials and Errors, a show consisting of vintage Songs: Ohia material and unreleased Magnolia Electric Co. songs that was recorded in 2003, even as Songs: Ohia was winding down, so never let it be said Molina’s doesn’t know how to subtly shift gears), this year also saw the excellent, subdued studio effort What Comes After the Blues.
Blues found Molina further exploring his country-rock side, but time has shown that the Magnolia Electric Co moniker represents not just Molina’s solitary vision, but an increasingly in-sync band. I caught the band live earlier this year, and the entire band was in ferocious lock-step mode the entire night (and Jason Groth revealed himself to be a guitar monster). So don’t let the somber mood of What Comes After the Blues fool you — these guys can turn it up when they want to.
The Hard to Love a Man EP, though, continues in the meditative late-night vibe of Blues. Its centerpiece, naturally, is “Hard to Love a Man”, one of Blues‘ standout tracks. Punctuated by keening pedal steel guitar and showcasing aching vocal interplay between Molina and Jennie Benford (of Jim & Jennie & the Pinetops), “Hard to Love a Man” is definitely a song that deserves the spotlight. Molina, taking the role of the lover left behind, sings “It was hard to love a man like you / Goodbye was half the words you knew / While you were waiting for me not to call / I sent my love”, as the band ebbs and flows behind him like a moonlit tide of emotion.
By the standard set by the title track, the EP’s other tracks initially seem like a letdown, but only because they don’t share “Blues”‘ structural ambition. “Bowery” perfectly fits the Molina mold and “Doing Something Wrong” makes good use of Mike Kapinus’ tasteful organ tones, as well as a nice, plaintive horn melody. And what’s not to love about the rookie-in-life metaphor of “31 Seasons in the Minor Leagues”, with lines like “you ain’t ever gonna win the game / Hell, kid, you don’t even know the coach’s name… And everything you ever looked up to / Now it’s all looking down on you”? They might not match up to “Hard to Love a Man”, but they’re perfectly good songs.
In short, Hard to Love a Man offers one of the band’s finest songs, three more decent originals, and one track that’s a bit of a throwaway: the band’s cover of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”. “Werewolves”, which has shown up in some Magnolia Electric Co. live shows, gets the studio treatment here, with Molina fighting laughter in one stanza. Despite the band’s hectic touring schedule, Hard to Love a Man shows that the band still has plenty of energy. What’s more, as Magnolia Electric Co. continue to grow as a cohesive band, future efforts can only improve on what’s quickly become an impressive body of work.