Jason Molina (aka Songs: Ohia) would have been just fine if he'd never left Will Oldham's (aka Palace, Palace Songs, Bonnie Prince Billy, etc.) shadow. If he'd never strayed far from Oldham's wracked hanging tree, he still would have created plenty of haunting music. Thankfully, though, Molina's more ambitious than that, and while there's arguably a Songs: Ohia sound, it really doesn't stay still very long. Perhaps the only constant is Molina's voice, a quavering and emotive instrument that wrings every last ounce of feeling out of its limited range.
The Magnolia Electric Co. continues the trend, and from its opening twang of lap steel guitar, it announces itself as something in keeping with the Songs: Ohia tradition, but also as its own electric beast. Country flourishes, spectral backing vocals, Crazy Horse-incarnation Neil Young guitar crunch -- all of it comes together for Molina's most energetic release to date. His previous release (barring tour EPs and the like), 2002's Didn't It Rain was a mix of jam session energy and bare-bones meditations; The Magnolia Electric Co. feels like more of a full-band effort. Loose threads abound, but the sense of direction in many of these songs could only come from a bit of planning. All in all, it's probably Molina's most consistently accessible release to date; Molina's traditional themes abound, but they're bedded in warm, full, almost classic rock tones (that Neil Young guitar sound rears its head more than a few times).
"Farewell Transmission" kicks things off with a plaintive pace that builds to an unrelenting urgency -- the backing vocals croon, the lap steel guitar gets more and more frenzied, Molina sings lyrics like "Mama, here comes midnight with the dead moon in its jaws" -- before the bottom slowly falls out and fades to lovely nothingness. Followed by "I've Been Riding with the Ghost," a haunting road song for those nights when the rear view mirror can't shrink the memories fast enough, The Magnolia Electric Co. starts off at an amazing pace. It almost seems like a cliche at this point to say each Songs: Ohia CD holds one of Molina's best songs yet, but lord, "Farewell Transmission" and "I've Been Riding with the Ghost" are pure brilliance.
If the rest of the record doesn't seem to maintain that level of excellence, it's not because there are any bad songs -- Molina just hits you with both barrels before you're even settled in, and it's an impossible level to expect him to maintain. "Just Be Simple" seems understated by comparison, although it holds up pretty darn well if you listen to it all by itself. "Almost Was Good Enough" rides waves of ringing guitar to meditate on the seasons ("It's been hard doing anything / Winter's stuck around so long"), secrets ("how the secrets always dress / When they want everyone to know they're around / Leaning in / whispering"), and mortality ("almost no one makes it out"). "The Old Black Hen" throws a bit of a wrench in the works, with Lawrence Peters throwing down some deep country vocals over a mournful fiddle melody -- musically, it fits the album's vibe, but the vocal effect is jarring. Much more consistent with the album's overall feel is Scout Niblett's turn on "Peoria Lunchbox Blues", which feels like a distaff version of Molina working her way in and out of the beat. Molina returns with a vengeance, though, on the rambling, rowdy "John Henry Split My Heart", which sounds like someone let Neil Young and Crazy Horse touch their guitars for the first time in five years. Things close out with "Hold On Magnolia", a relaxed, nearly eight-minute coda that initially doesn't seem like much, but which works that mildly hypnotic Molina vibe before too long.
The Magnolia Electric Co. marks some of Molina's best work yet, and that's saying something considering the body of work he's amassed over six years, roughly 10 proper albums, and countless B-sides. Songs like "I've Been Riding with the Ghost" hold the same snap as past Molina classics like "Lioness" or "Nervous Bride", but there's a feel here that recalls a moment like Wilco's Summer Teeth, where an artist closes the door on what they've done before. Compared to the brilliant quaver of 1999's Axxess and Ace, The Magnolia Electric Co. is almost commercial in the fullness of its sound -- many longtime fans will no doubt be put off by it. It has the feel, though, of an artist turning a corner, of adding a few new colors to his palette and seeing a ton of previously unthinkable possibilities on the horizon. Here's hoping that future Songs: Ohia efforts make good on the current promise of this disc.