It’s been eight months now since JASON MOLINA died – eight months of dealing with the loss and slowly accepting, that there is no way for either one of his projects, SONGS:OHIA or MAGNOLIA ELECTRIC CO, to come back on tour again; or even releasing new music. It’s an awful feeling, realizing, that one of your favorite artists from now on is nothing but retrospective. But as we’ve got plenty of those nostalgic obituaries lately, there’s a good point in looking back on MOLINA‘s music now. With the release of SONGS:OHIA’s Magnolia Electric Co in 2003, JASON MOLINA decided to step away from his solemn songwriting in favor of an actual band line-up – his new project was born. And still today, one can’t avoid recognizing what a masterpiece of gloomy alt-country this record is. Reason enough for his former label Secretly Canadian to reissue it for a 10th anniversary edition, adding demo-versions and some previously unheard recordings. Take it as a good opportunity to revisit a classic of his with all it’s moments bursting with fear, sadness and beauty.
The impact of this record probably starts already with the iconic loneliness in the cover-imagery created by WILL SCHAFF (who also worked with OKKERVIL RIVER several times, as well as with postrock-giants GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR). A perfect visual teaser for the welcoming words of MOLINA: “the whole place is dark”, as he dives into a, at that time, new discovered broadness of sound. With production-legend STEVE ALBINI in the studio, MOLINA fully went into this whole band-thing and it is mesmerizing to be a witness of that process by listening to Farewell Transmission. There is no way to escape this record anymore as MOLINA wails a haunting goodbye to the working-class romanticism of his hometown in the Midwest, feverishly bursting out in the end: “Mama here comes midnight with the dead moon in it’s jaws/ must be the big star about to fall”. Generally, whatever you might think of the depressing lyrics, the songs of Magnolia Electric Co foremost explore the hardness of carrying on instead of simply giving in to complaining about circumstances. “While you’ve been busy crying about my past mistakes/ I’ve been busy tryin’ to make a change”, Molina states in I’ve been riding with the ghost – but whatsoever strength he found, his improvement is a defiant one: “see, I ain’t gettin’ better/ I’m only gettin’ behind”.
It’s this bridged gap between the compulsion to look ahead and the temptation of resigning, that makes this record a statement, rather than a collection of songs. MOLINA consistently fought to be loved for the right reasons with his songs; and refused to be loved for the sake of being loved. SONGS:OHIA-records have never been about perfection in the first place. There’s always been a certain amount of refusal in them. On this record, maybe guest singers SCOUT NIBLETT on Peoria Lunch Box Blues and LAWRENCE PETERS on The Old Black Hen are two of the few let-downs, although Magnolia Electric Co most clearly aimed for accessibility. An accessibility, that culminates in the beauty of Hold On Magnolia which lyrics become even more tragic in the retrospective.
Somehow, Magnolia Electric Co feels like a transitioning record these days; it’s a snapshot of MOLINA‘s balancing act between opening up and closing in, aiming for new heights and reducing his songwriting to it’s basic strenghts. A feeling, that is underlined by the bonus-tracks The Big Game Is Every Night and Whip Poor Will – nine minutes of excessive rock here and reduced ukulele-sadness there. Sadly, the drinking-issues of JASON MOLINA began to expand in the aftermath of this record. Maybe carrying on took him too much in the end; but fortunately, he left us some of the most beautiful tunes on that path. It’s time to finally honour his work appropriately.
If really I am the snake they’re all sayin’ / If they look up here, do they see just my black tail swayin’ / If I’m all fangs and all lies and all poison / If I’m really what they’re sayin’, I don’t wanna disappoint ’em.
You can stream the entire album over at NPR