Review by Thom Jurek
Magnolia Electric Co.'s Sojourner is a kind of "love for the fans" offering. It comes encased in a wooden box, with a sliding top, with the band's logo imprinted on the front. Inside are four different CDs, containing four different sessions (and corresponding postcards), recorded in as many different places with four different lineups. There is also a short DVD documenting the band's 2005's Canadian tour in 2005, by Todd Chandler, Tim Sutton, and Ava Berfkovsky. There is a folded poster as well. Inside a small black velveteen pouch there is a pewter medallion with the band's logo engraved on it. It's a memento mori of a time spent traveling through these songs with the journeyman guide. It is limited to 5,000 copies and is available from the band's label, Secretly Canadian, for €26 ($37) postpaid. Some of the material on the four recorded discs -- three albums (entitled Nashville Moon, Shohola, and Black Ram) and an EP, Sun Session (recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis) -- has appeared elsewhere before. That said, many songs are here in very different incarnations, recorded, re-recorded, or demoed by Jason Molina himself. But this is no mere odds-and-sods collection. In fact, it feels like Molina must be exhausted, by being so prolific.
Fading Trails, released in September of 2006, contained nine of the songs from these different sessions, giving it its rather schizophrenic character. Nashville Moon was recorded with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio in Chicago. It contains 12 cuts, and only "Lonesome Valley," "Montgomery," and "Don't Fade on Me" were included on Fading Trails. This is a full-band set, with Molina accompanied by six other musicians including Jason Evans Groth on lead guitar, Mark Rice on drums, Michael Kapinus on keyboards, Jonathan Cargill on backing vocals, Mike Brenner on lap steel, and bassist Pete Schreiner. Given its title, this is the most "country" set in the box. But Molina's country music is more haunted than hunted. Some of these tunes, like "Hammer Down" and "North Star," appeared on What Comes After the Blues but in radically different, stripped-down versions. They feel more like road songs performed in a smoky barroom than late-night back-porch confessionals. These full-on band treatments add heft and dimension, and underscore them somehow as "definitive."
The Sun Session EP, just over 15 minutes in length, was recorded in a single day while the group was on tour in 2006. The band received payment in studio hours from the venue that hosted them. "Memphis Moon" and "Talk to Me Devil Again" were issued on Fading Trails, but the other two tracks, a freshly recorded "Hold on Magnolia" (originally found on the Songs:Ohia album that gave Magnolia Electric Co. its name) and the band's reading of the traditional "Trouble in Mind," are new. Shohola contains eight cuts with Molina accompanying himself on a guitar. Nothing more. It is the spookiest of the four recordings for sure. While the What Comes After the Blues album may have been spectral in its minimal approach, this set feels positively skeletal. Again, the hints were on Fading Trails in "Steady Now" and "Spanish Moon Fall and Rise," but they only lower the shroud. A slow, lonesome guitar frames Molina's sense of desolation in the lyrics of "Night Country" -- "I have to live this way/Be the builder of no house/Oh lone pine on the fading trails/I join you now/The night country comes...." This disc is only 25 minutes long, but any more would be oppressive.
The final album in the set -- or first depending on the way you decide to listen to them -- is Black Ram, another full ensemble set with David Lowery, Andrew Bird, Molly Blackbird, Rick Alverson, and Miguel Urbitzondo. It begins mournfully with the slow, meandering 4/4 of "In the Human World," but the mix swells even as the tempo continues to drag. The refrain empties out into a wave of Mellotron and harmonium, as guitars unwind. And just as it all becomes nearly full-bodied, the tune just ends. Each tune has a way of beginning with less than it closes. The title track commences as a mutant blues with tinny acoustic guitars, but almost as soon as Molina opens his mouth with his strange incantatory chant, referring to both a person and the person's reflection in the natural countryside, eerie sounds, electric guitars, and reverb envelope it. It's all so disembodied it can barely be called a song. Black Ram is the place where this collection should either begin or end. It doesn't belong in the middle because it's the most physical of the four discs, and because there's at least the determination to find resolve, even if it ends in a kind of lyrical, philosophical, and first-person failure. In other words, the same spirits who have dogged Molina on every previous recording are still here, shape-shifting to meet his every challenge. There's nothing left to do but welcome them in. Sojourner is an aptly titled monolith, one that invites fans of Magnolia Electric Co. with a "thank you for believing," even as it urges them to take in more of the picture than ever before.
Magnolia Electric Co.
[Secretly Canadian; 2007]
Names don't seem to be terribly important to Jason Molina. He began recording under various guises during the mid-1990s and released his first album as Songs: Ohia in 1997. Earlier this decade, he unceremoniously changed the band's name to the Magnolia Electric Company (such that Songs: Ohia's final album, called The Magnolia Electric Company, is often filed under both S and M). Recently, whether by choice or by common usage, both the The and the mpany have been dropped, leaving only Magnolia Electric Co. It's not as drastic as the moniker-shifting of Will Oldham, but it is interesting considering that Molina (who also releases under his own name) is the sole long-term member of Magnolia Electric Co.
That most recent incarnation of the name appears on every piece of the Sojourner box set-- the wooden container, the five discs, their popcorn-bag-style sleeves, the postcard tracklists, even the pewter medallion. Only the fold-out map of the stars carries no insignia, which seems vaguely appropriate. This branding implies a more rooted identity, but Molina apparently knows that names changes as easily and as quickly as the scenery, and one assumes that for him it's never the same from one day to the next. It's difficult to tell whether his nomadic lifestyle (he tours nearly constantly) is the impetus behind his music, which obsesses over displacement through lunar and celestial imagery, as if he's constantly navigating by the stars. Or perhaps it's the other way around: Maybe his musical fascinations demand displacement and rootlessness. Like Isaac Brock in the 1990s, Molina is concerned with constant motion through an American landscape. His albums, and especially Sojourner, are postmillennial road-trip art-rock, albeit in a very traditionalist, rather than an existential, vein.
Molina's view of the country has more in common with Dust Bowl itinerants or even nineteenth-century landscape painters than with most current touring acts. Sojourner is his largest canvas yet, and perhaps his most detailed and deliberate. The 4xCD/1xDVD set culls tracks from the four recording sessions that fed his 2006 album, Fading Trails, and yet, these generous odds and ends make for a better listening experience than the release for which they were intended. Perhaps it's the length: Molina's musings sound like products of long drives spent looking at barren scenery, and it often seems like that's how they're best consumed and considered. Sojourner will get you pretty far.
So let's start in Memphis: Sun Sessions is the shortest disc in the set, with only four patiently paced songs forming a solid EP. With its full sound that plays into the local mood without trying to re-create Bluff City sounds, "Talk to Me Devil, Again" goes down to the crossroads, but "Hold on Magnolia" and the traditional "Trouble in Mind" extol the virtues of strength, perseverance, and hard-won hope-- the last a rarity for Molina. "I won't be blue always," he sings on "Trouble in Mind", finding solace in the century-old words. "You know the sun is going to shine in my backdoor someday."
Not everything is so rosy: "Everything in its place," Molina sings on "Steady Now", the opening track on Shohola. "The world does have to end in pain." Featuring Molina accompanied only by his guitar and the roomy hiss of the recorder, Shohola is lonely and quiet like his 2006 vinyl-only album Let Me Go Let Me Go Let Me Go, although never quite as intense. It's a perfect setting for his off-kilter vocals, which are often compared to Neil Young despite not sounding very much like that grizzled Canadian. On "Spanish Moon Fall and Rise" and "The Lamb's Song" he sounds just barely on key, with a steeliness in his voice that is often mistaken for detachment. But here even his breaths are audible as he tentatively picks his way through "Night Country" and "Shiloh Temple Bell", as if driving down some dark road.
Nashville Moon and The Black Ram both return Molina to a full-band setting. The former, produced by Steve Albini, emphasizes his classic-rock chops on "Lonesome Valley" and "Texas 71", allowing for jammy passages, short guitar solos, and underlinable declarations like "I make my mistakes on my own time." The band is especially solid, most notably Mark Rice's drums and Mike "Slo-Mo" Brenner's stately pedal and lap steel, but there's an almost self-consciously workmanlike spirit to these dozen road hymns, as if Albini is highlighting a blue-collar ethos in Molina's words. The straightforward arrangements on "Hammer Down" and "Don't Fade on Me" strengthen their impact, however, and the clear, clean melodic lines tie all the songs together, almost too neatly.
Black Ram is something weirder altogether, and the most satisfying disc in the set. David Lowery's production highlights the odd and the atmospheric in Molina's music, creating a weary travelogue that strives to pinpoint the epic in the everyday. The title track clamors dramatically, the guitars on "What's Broken Becomes Better" churn tensely, and "Will-O-the-Wisp" sounds like a Morricone soundtrack for some unfilmed Western. It's a long drive for someone with too much to think about.
The DVD, titled The Road Becomes What You Leave, wraps all these disparate approaches together as Molina and his road band travel through cold, rural Canada and play a few of these compositions. But it only points out how different these four discs are and how multifaceted and expandable Molina's seemingly limited artistry can be. Spanning multiple styles and states as it maps out both a personal and a national landscape, the set is perhaps accidentally one of the strongest releases of his career, despite its catch-all organization. Molina still sounds rootless and displaced, but Sojourner triangulates a place that's as close to home as he ever seems to get.
-Stephen M. Deusner, August 08, 2007