[Note: The name of this category is painfully apt and almost inappropriate, given the recent death of Songs: Ohia bandleader, Jason Molina. For that, I apologize.]
I feel like a fair amount of college kids go through an alt-country phase. (Commenters: tell me if this is an inaccurate generalization.) Either way, I certainly went through one. Two common precipitators of such kicks in music are Wilco and Ryan Adams. Mine was definitely the latter. I still consider Wilco highly overrated.
In any case, by the time late 2006/early 2007 came around, I was big on Adams, Lucinda Williams, Neko Case and others of that ilk. My best friend showed me Songs: Ohia’s final album, The Magnolia Electric Co. It would be the final album Jason Molina put out under that name, after which he adopted the record’s title as his band moniker.
My buddy put on the opening track, “Farewell Transmission,” with the sort of good-natured smirk he has a tendency to wear when he knows he’s about to play someone something they’re gonna like. His expression was warranted. I pretty much instantly said “THAT IS MY SHIIIIIIT.”
The song has that sort of mid-tempo burn and aching melodic tone that is reserved for the best blues, country and alt-country. I have to admit: I probably spent more time listening to “Farewell Transmission” than I did the album as a whole, but I stuck with it and definitely got to know it.
“Ache” is a perfect word for this album. Check out the song “Just Be Simple.” Its core lyric is low-key brutal:
“I ain’t lookin for the easy way out. / This whole life has been about trying, trying, trying, trying, trying, trying…to be simple again. / Just be simple again.”
Or from “Almost Was Good Enough” – “Did you really believe, come on, did you REALLY believe, that you’d ever make it out? / No one really makes it out.”
In our jaded age, it can be tempting to dismiss such lyrics out of hand. When indie songs truly ache, the lyrics had either be oblique (Bon Iver) or far more direct (Best Coast) to earn a response from the hard-hearted millennials. (Side note: I like both those bands.) I’ve always been of a mind that simple profundity is more valuable than deliberate attempts at complexity.
Continuing in that vein, Molina cedes vocal duties to Lawrence Peters, and singer-songwriter Scout Niblett, on “The Old Black Hen” and “Peoria Lunch Box Blues,” respectively. Both of these performers have clean, striking (if arguably traditionally unremarkable) voices, and both add to the feeling of wrenching lament that persists throughout The Magnolia Electric Co. The former song is more arresting to me than the latter, though some may find it an overly traditional exercise.
The album reaches its apotheosis with its penultimate track, “John Henry Split My Heart,” which allows Molina and his band to show the full extent of their musical and lyrical powers. It’s a rollicking romp indebted to the slower numbers of the Allman Brothers Band and early Lynyrd Skynrd. It is highlighted by a particularly poetic lyric that could be applied to a heartbreak, the loss of a friend or loved one or any devastating event, where the pain seems like all you can perceive. “Swing the heaviest hammer you got and hit this one out of the park, John Henry split this heart.”
In all honesty, I fell out of touch with this album, and I never dug much into the back catalog of either Songs: Ohia or The Magnolia Electric Co. But, for anyone with the right kind of ears, The Magnolia Electric Co. will be a special experience and a genuinely affecting record that is a beautiful testament to those moments we all feel when everything seems wrong – when the darkness gets in, when the demons seem too close to fight off.
Liam Green can be reached at email@example.com.