Songs: Ohia – The Magnolia Electric Co.
“You’ll never hear me talk about/someday getting out/why put a new address on the same old loneliness?” Jason Molina sings on “Just Be Simple,” the third track on his 2003 record The Magnolia Electric Co. Simple, sparing, precise, both lyrically and musically, Magnolia, is a startlingly powerful album. I first stumbled upon Jason Molina’s music only weeks ago while reading about Irish singer/songwriter and Once star, Glen Hansard. The two shared a long friendship and correspondence that began when a young Hansard wrote fan letters to Molina in the late 1990s. Molina died in 2013 of cirrhosis of the liver, from basically drinking himself to death, but achieved a prolific yet sadly overlooked career. His 2003 album The Magnolia Electric Co. (released under the moniker “Songs: Ohia”) struck a particular chord in me, and I’ve unable to stop listening to it for these past few weeks.
Though limited in range, Jason Molina’s voice carries an almost inexplicable weight and sincerity. The few moments where he falters when hitting higher notes almost lend the album a sort of imperfect human quality. Sam Cooke famously said, “voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth,” and Molina had me believing from the first note of “Farewell Transmission,” the album opener. At times, he taps into fragility in his voice that sounds eerily like Harvest-era Neil Young. Molina even seems to hint that he is working in the tradition of Neil Young, with the dead-simple kick and snare drum beats that punctuate the record. The lightly distorted guitars and rough room sound of “Farewell Transmission” sounds strikingly similar to Young’s “Alabama.” Next to Molina’s unusual and compelling voice, one seemingly minor, yet distinctive element that drew me into this record is the prominent use of the lapsteel guitar, which is laden in a roomy sounding reverb, and carries many of the melodies on the album.
Lyrically the songs are filled with traditional Americana imagery, from John Henry’s hammer, to the “great highway,” yet given a new, post-industrial context. On “Farewell Transmission“, he sings: “Now we’ll all be brothers of the fossil fire of the sun.” The songs goes on to address the dark underbelly of the American dream with details about working class, small town America—the folks who are so often written out of history and pop culture. Molina succeeds in making these personal songs political.
Perhaps the most poignant moment on the record comes with the closer, “Hold On Magnolia,” a slow waltz-like song, when Molina’s vocal enters unsuspectingly and the minor first minor chord is hit by his band. The lapsteel, electric guitars, violin, and organs create a lovely background for Molina’s voice, though the song clocks in at 8 minutes, much like the fleeting, impermanence of life, before you realize it, it’s over, the melodies left ringing in your ears.