Alt Country Week: Magnolia Electric Co - Leaving the City
Reluctant though he may be, Jason Molina has been hailed as one of the pivotal figures in Alt. Country, since the term was cut free from its associations with the No Depression scene, and those 80s and 90s rock bands as much influenced by the ragged glory of Neil Young, The Stones, and the Velvets, as they were by the outlaw mystique of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Gram Parsons. Maybe Molina doesn’t want to go down in the same ship as a whole bunch of people casting around for an identity in the rootless 21st century, should there ever be a backlash… and maybe it’s because he’s far too immersed in the old, old music behind all of the above (Williams included). That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with ironic appropriations of Country’s metaphors and arrangements, when urban folk use them as masks to speak the truth, but if you want to understand why music should be bound up with a particular place you’ve lived and loved (and maybe hated), Molina could be the best guide.
If the Alt Country tag has stuck fast, you could say it’s Will Oldham’s fault, since he put out that first Songs:Ohia single, and John Peel put it on air (as he did for Palace Brothers). Splitting hairs, the debut album has more of a hillbilly feel to it, with its high, keening vocals; plus, the lack of harmonies, or picking on the guitar, aligns Songs:Ohia with an earlier tradition than most variants of Country as we know it. When Molina collaborated with members of Arab Strap and Appendix Out (for The Lioness and Ghost Tropic), he converged with a late-90s vogue for using drum-machines and synths that linked him with Palace Music (Arise, Therefore), Smog, and Sparklehorse, but the resemblance was more coincidence than “scene”. None were “modernizing” the genre so much as exploiting the mechanically repetitious character of their instruments to imbue their songs with a sense of fatal inevitability, and the cyclic rhythm of work and the seasons. In the hands of Linkous and Callahan, programming often has the wistful charm of children’s toys, but with Molina, repetition conveys the subtle dread that the heart is just a machine for pumping blood.
Recording his masterful Didn’t It Rain (2002) with Jim and Jennie Benford from the Pinetop Seven might have re-aligned Molina with “Alt Folk” (a stone’s throw from Alt Country), but by being true to himself, Molina inadvertently raises some questions about whether being true to a genre (and its imaginary rules) actually hinders other artists; enjoining them to a naïve recital of clichés about steers and pickups and good ole boys, so as to be accepted by an un-discerning audience. As much a “Dark Night of the Soul” as Ghost Tropic, Molina’s later visions of the city (from Didn’t It Rain, onwards) are astonishingly powerful, but it’s recognizably a rusting industrial city in the post-industrial age. It’s partly the City of his youth, partly the City of Red Night. Sure, “Country” was defined throughout the 20th century in opposition to hip, fashionable, urban, culturally-mixed genres, but as a songwriter, Molina seems unique (or very, very rare) in his ability to distinguish the Cosmopolis familiar to most of us (with its streets paved with silicon from discarded computers), and speak for the working man in those country-towns that grew to city-size, before they were discarded in their own way. As a lyricist, rather than a novelist, Molina leaves enough space for the listener to imagine themselves in that drudgery, that emptiness… making sense of those mythic signs and portents… seeing that the Country of the old Country singers never went away.
Apocalypse, Now: Trials and Errors & What Comes after the Blues
It wasn’t until the advent of Magnolia Electric Co – a three-guitar band with long-term associate Mike Brenner on dobro and lap steel – that the music really started sounding like Neil Young and Crazy Horse; that’s to say, like Alt Country, through and through. Perhaps so as not to scare anyone off, the album titled Magnolia Electric Co. (2003) was released under the old band name (see the DiS Profile of Songs:Ohia from 2008, for this and the sublime solo album, Pyramid Electric Co.). The first official release under the new name was therefore a limited edition live album, Trials & Errors (2005). There may have been a sense of wariness in the title, and the centrepiece was the same as Didn’t It Rain (‘Ring the Bell’ and ‘Cross the Road, Molina’) – a mythic encounter at the crossroads, as guitars and cellos heave and saw around the latterday pilgrim. Nonetheless, there’s more new material (by length) than any previous release, and the title’s anything but an in-joke about a difficult recording process. In Molina’s case, every (artistic) trial is just that – a struggle for the truth, under threat of sentencing and conviction – whilst errors really are a matter of wandering from the path, into a ghost-haunted wilderness.
With its apocalyptic triad closing the set (‘Leave the City’, ‘The Last Three Human Words’, ‘The Big Beast’), the album pushes Christian elements even further into the spotlight, but whereas the Christ of Magnolia Electric Co. (2003) was a lonely figure doing good in a spiritually bankrupt world (a world of trucks and trains, implicitly), the Sacrificial Drama here begins in a pagan fashion, with humanity absent, or on its way out:
All the way down Gospel Street
A dead bird was hauling an ivory box
Back from Redemption…
and he just buried the last chance we got
All the way down Locust Street
A black ox was hauling a white willow box
Back from Oblivion…
he just dug up the last chance we got
You can climb to the top of the wall
and look down on it all
and never tell what you saw
The last three human words
were the same as the first three were
Every single night I think it’s almost over
this mess we’re in
Every single night I hear the great beast howling
Wouldn’t you like to see the whole place in ruins?
Instead of all the things they keep doing in our name
Ah, “the things they keep doing in our name” – this is 2005, remember. It’s clear who’s on trial, No? Politics aside, as a genre-piece, it’s significant how many obvious borrowings there are from older artists, making Trials & Errors the boldest declaration of Molina’s allegiance to a tradition of jeremiads in American literature, poetry, and music. Breaking the listener in gently, the album’s mood is set by lines snuck in from ‘Out on the Weekend’ and ‘Lay Lady Lay’ (Neil Young and Bob Dylan, respectively). These come across as an evocation of the musical golden age that was the late-1960s, rather than a particular comment on the songs themselves. The final track, however, takes its refrain from Neil Young’s notorious Tonight’s the Night. At the climax of the song, Molina hollers: “Every single night I hear the big beast howling… TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT! TONIGHT’S THE… NIGHT!” The lyric’s a variation on the ‘hellhound on my trail’ / ‘black-eyed dog’ metaphors of classic blues, but coupled with the guitars, these distorted vocals suggest the scream of jet engines, moments before impact. Maybe that’s reading too much in, but Molina had already painted a collision on the cover of ‘The Grey Tower’ / ‘Black Link to Fire Link’ single, from 2002. Unlike the shadows slinking after so many bluesmen, Molina’s bete noire is more than an image of solitude and personal, private depression: the violence of the music, and the force of the vocal make it clear the war is out there, in the world, as much as it’s in here, in the cage of the singer’s mind. If there’s any guilt, it comes from being able to do little more than witness what’s going on.
Close on the heels of Trials & Errors, What Comes After the Blues (also 2005) felt like a deliberate attempt to depict the world as UN-miraculous, but still worth living in. Briefly, this is the geographically-isolated working-class world of Molina’s childhood and adolescence. Lyrically, the album’s less detailed, the metaphors scarce – the album’s partly about a kind of masculinity that precludes anything smacking of fantasy or whimsy. Having explored the perilous, wolf-infested forests of his subconscious for years, it’s as if Molina came up against a cold, stern, male-archetype who said “You know what else has wolves in it? Children’s stories.” Across the album, the city sucks the characters souls out… and pushes them out on the road… but the recurrent symbol of the ‘north star’ is a lyrical and musical emblem of hope, and something beyond all this: Molina re-working and re-working Hank Williams’ country song to stand for the artist’s faith that there’s something above it all.
Well-received by the critics, What Comes After the Blues divided many hardcore fans with its mannered performance. Without an audience to feed off, and the chemistry that comes from two or more idiosyncratic songwriters interacting, it’s smooth-edged, mid-tempo, country-blues. The opening bars of ‘The Dark Don’t Hide It’ growl and scratch and rip… and then subside, as lapsteel comes to dominate the album’s texture. The songs that had previously been released (‘Dark Don’t Hide It’ and ‘Leave the City’), sound almost polite, by comparison.
Of the songs that shine out, ‘Hard to Love a Man’ (as in: “hard to love a man like you / goodbye was half the words you knew”) is a break-through in Molina’s songwriting. The song faces up to an emotionally absent father, and although he’s discreet about specific charges, the eerie sound of the mellotron conveys some impression of how deserted and bewildered he feels. Near the end, accompanied only by a minimal strum and tapping on the guitar’s body, ‘Hammer Down’ invokes Woody Guthrie as well as John Henry so as to bring one song-cycle to an end: “hammer down / heaven bound / I saw the light / in the old grey town”. In a poignant, confessional move, Molina announces: “Sometimes I forget / how I’ve always been sick / and I don’t have the will to keep fighting it”; the flipside of this sorrow is that rare ability to see the Kingdom of Heaven right around you: “I think the stars / are just the neon lights / shining through the dancefloor / shining through the dancefloor… / of Heaven, on a Saturday night / I saw the light…” It’s a gorgeous moment. Elsewhere, Molina continues with his personification of The Blues as his hunter, or adversary. Like Jandek on his own contemporaneous records, Molina suggests that he’s fighting the Blues itself.
The album that restored every devotee’s faith in Molina’s genius was his bold experiment in spontaneous writing and recording: one day spent in a room ‘with a single bulb burning overhead.’ Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go (2006) pulled everything together: every archetypal image, and every trusty chord progression. This might sound like laziness, but the art was in the re-arrangement, and in any case proved that Molina owned his images. In some places, a single chorus or hook was all that a song’s emotional impetus could manage before collapsing: the unexpectedly yelled line, “Pain in my heart / finally made it’s way out of my head…!” startling the listener with its defiant wrenching away from the allure of despair. On the last two tracks, Molina revisited the chugging drum-machines and groaning organs of the Ghost / Protection Spells / Ghost Tropic album-cycle; arguably, surpassing them, as he sets sail on the voyage you don’t come back from. It’s a stark album, but it’s a consoling album – the prefatory note spelling out that some breeds of depression don’t die easy, or ever, which God knows someone needs to say. Think of the first time you heard Thom Yorke’s The Eraser (2006), and the realization that maybe a songwriter you thought you knew had actually been putting on a brave face for their band (or feeding off them), and for all that they spoke to you before, they’d been sparing you the worst.
Fading Trails, The Sojourner Box-Set, Josephine
In a similar vein to What Comes After the Blues, and with a similar sequence (from country-rock songs to solo-acoustic), MECo put out Fading Trails just before Let Me Go… (both 2006). The album was actually a taster for The Sojourner Box Set (2007), collecting four different recording sessions: solo, with MECo, and with a new ensemble of musicians recruited for the sake of a fresh collaboration.
This has been a long piece on Magnolia Electric Co, focusing a lot on how the apocalyptic threat of The War on Terror could be so well captured by an artist already developing his own mythic language... maybe not the best place to do justice to the most recent material. The forthcoming review of Josephine (due July 20th 2009) will touch on these later albums, and the move back to the personal, to a world with more people and places, more lovingly pictured than ever before. A world that just might last.
The title track from Josephine is available here
- Jason Molina: Farewell Transmission
- Where to start with... Jason Molina, Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co.
- Molina And Johnson - Molina and Johnson
- A Month In Records: July 2009
- Magnolia Electric Co. - Josephine
- Magnolia Electric Co. - Josephine
- Alt Country Week: Magnolia Electric Co - Leaving the City
- Flower power: Jason Molina plays UK shows this week