Classic Americana Albums: Songs: Ohia “Magnolia Electric Co.”

Secretly Canadian, 2003

Magnolia Electric Co.’ is the place to enter the world of Jason Molina. It draws together the essential elements of his music to the point that is most accessible, combining alt-country, low-fi and indie-rock seamlessly. In hindsight, it is almost impossible to hear his tenor vocal and lyrics without premonition of his death at only 39 – but that was a decade in the future from when this album was released.

Jason Molina recorded as a singer-songwriter with a rotating set of musicians as Songs: Ohia and ‘Magnolia Electric Co.’ is published as the seventh and last album by Songs:Ohia, but it is also the debut of his subsequent eponymous band and it remains unclear if this was understood at the time of writing, as though in recognition of the transition taking place. It was recorded with the legendary Steve Albini and the first release also contained a second LP of the demos and outtakes.

The lyrics are poetic, the vocals are fragile but never hesitant, the result is shamanic. ‘Farewell Transmission’ is the obvious standout track. It was recorded live with a dozen people in the room. In his own words: “I got all my favorite friends from Chicago, and my favorite, good musicians and we just did this record, and it has lasted. It’s got weight, I’m talking 500 pound weight; something you ain’t going to be able to lift too easy. You have to understand we’re working on a string, and Steve is throwing us a bone, giving us the studio and everything, and we are terrified about how expensive it is and he just went the extra mile. That’s the way it works and that’s where I come from. You get the job fucking done.”

As a counterpoint ‘The Old Black Hen’ features Lawrence Peters on lead vocals and appears as ‘almost’ a traditional song, similarly for ‘Whip Poor Will’ as a bonus track. Somewhere in between lie classics like ‘John Henry Split My Heart’ and ‘Hold On Magnolia’. Overall the music straddles from delicate country to the full force of Crazy Horse at their finest without once straying from the core of melancholia which drenches you throughout. “For once, almost was good enough”, of that there is no doubt.

Jason was obviously acutely aware of his own failings and it is highly likely that this aspect of his personality played a part in his drinking and his downfall. He treated songwriting like a job. “I throw away most of what I write,” he said in a 2006 interview. “I feel a lot of guilt about the freedom that being an artist provides. I ask myself, ‘Why am I not the guy emptying the trash, why am I the guy who is watching the guy empty the trash?’” After his death, two posthumous cover singles were subsequently released – one from Townes Van Zandt, the other from Black Sabbath. This combination seems entirely consistent and appropriate.

It will get so quiet when this record ends” so play it loud.

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Thank you. I still get a strange sad feeling inside whenever I hear Farewell Transmission, and this is an outstanding album.
Jason Molina, so very talented, troubled and missed.