by Michael Goldberg
Monday, March 10, 2003
Jason Molina Wants To Make A Change
Frank confessions from the new king of heartache.
Jason Molina, who records albums under the name Songs: Ohia, wants to do the right thing. On his latest album, The Magnolia Electric Co. (Secretly Canadian), with the help of a full electric backing band, Molina sings about the mistakes he's made and how "something's gotta change."
He sounds like he really wants to make some changes. You could say that's a trite thought, something you'd find in self-help books or hear on "Dr. Phil." And I'd say that there are some basic, simple ideas that are worth repeating.
Molina's new album just might be the best Neil Young album since Ragged Glory, and I hope you don't take that the wrong way. When you focus in on the details the actual sound of Molina's affecting but plainspoken Ohio Everyman voice and frank lyrics, the band's country-rock sound, the tone of the guitars, the way the musicians work to make this music none of it is really anything like the details of Young's work. Yet the feel is very much early-'70s Neil Young After the Gold Rush/ Harvest/ Time Fades Away/ Tonight's The Night-period Neil Young.
There's a looseness to this music. It sounds like Molina, who plays guitar, and the musicians singer/mandolin player Jennie Benford, lapsteel guitarist Mike Brenner, keyboardist "Three Nickel" Jim Grabowski, guitarist/violinist/singer Dan Macadam, drummer Jeff Panall, singers Lawrence Peters and Scout Niblett, guitarist Dan Sullivan and bassist Rob Sullivan just set up in the studio and, with Steve Albini behind the board, played these songs live. And they're all so good that they nailed it. Great feel, great sound. Particularly when the guitars take off, spiraling through the foggy woods, chasing down demons as they do on "Almost Was Good Enough," you could think this was the best country rock you'd ever heard.
It's almost a "folk" record. Not the sound, mind you which is rock but in the way that folk music was (is) passed along.. Muddy Waters, say, borrowing from Robert Johnson, to make of it something new. Molina has done just that; he takes the old sounds and lays his own thing on 'em.
What's refreshing is that Molina isn't trying to pretend that he's invented the wheel. The press release that arrived with my copy of the album says it lies "at the crossroads of working class rock, white soul, swamp rock and outlaw country" and name checks Dylan, Bob Seger, Lynyrd Skynyrd and, of course, Young's long out-of-print Time Fades Away. Talk about wearing your influences on your sleeve!
There are a couple of guest lead vocals on the album. "The Old Black Hen," the most country song here, is sung by Lawrence Peters with a big old-school country voice. And Scout Niblett (that's a woman) breaks hearts when she takes over for "Peoria Lunch Box Blues." There's nothing typical about giving away the leads on two out of eight songs, but then, with Jason Molina, it makes sense. "We'll all sing along to the bad-luck lullaby," goes part of the chorus of "The Old Black Hen."
The album actually comes with two CDs. The first is the regular electric album. The second contains solo, lo-fi recordings Molina made at home, on his own, of most of the songs that appear of the first CD. That second CD is no throwaway. I actually got into it first, and listened to it many times before moving to the full-band album.
My favorite song here is "Just Be Simple," a meditation on loneliness that is as beautiful as it is sad. It appears on both albums. The band version is a mournful, languid country rocker with stunning lap steel and Molina's forthright vocal. He sounds like a man who has come, hat in hand, to his lover to plead forgiveness when he admits, "And everything you hated me for/ Honey there was so much more/ I just didn't get busted." Only he'd probably sitting in a dark apartment, alone, talking to the walls.
But it's this opening that floors me. Imagine a sweet, country-flavored lap-steel guitar riff, joined by a rhythm section dealing a version of Young's "Heart of Gold." And then Molina sings, "You'll never hear me talk about/ One day getting' out/ Why put a new address/ On the same old loneliness/ Everybody knows where that is...."
He concludes: "I ain't looking for that easy way out/ This whole life has been about/ Trying, trying, trying/ Trying, trying, trying/ Just be simple again/ Just be simple again."
It's time to stop "trying," Jason, and just do it.