Jason Molina in Fragments, Memories, Ghosts, Poems, Songs
We don’t have a name for the kind of sound that takes up space and does nothing more- a tone without a key, a breath flattened and frozen, friction without an object to release itself onto. Listen to the song above, a Jason Molina track recorded on an Italian radio station in 2007. The sound is everywhere in this song. I might not have a name from it. Jason Molina has at least as dozen. He would call it the dark or the blues or he would call it ghosts, for a few. I think he got strength from putting those names onto that sound which seemed to stick to him more than most. I’ll get back to the ghosts, I promise.
One of the most touching collections of music I was ever given was given to me by Carissa Hamman of Cincinnati, Ohio in my freshman year of college. It was a CD-R, in a delicately folded and meticulously scotch-taped paper enveloped. the cover was a pressed-pen drawing of a flower of a mostly blackened flower, a few bits of pink slighting out near the top. The track listing was written in the kind of script that looks like a series of precisely placed fallen eyelashes. Though, I will say, I read “Hot Black Silk” as “Not Black Silk” until I had to look up the title, just now. Before I even listen to the mix, a collection of Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Company music, I could tell that this was the kind of music you put this much effort into presenting to someone. Sad songs flatlined into those two track-dividing seconds of silence only to be brushed off and hung up as scarecrows with the start of the next, slightly-less-sad take. I was terribly sad when I thought I lost that CD in a move, and very relieved when I found it some months later.
That wasn’t the only relationship that had some form of a start involving Songs: Ohia. The first time I drove my current girlfriend home, she got giddy when she found Songs: Ohia on my iPod, and then indignant, berating me for not having more Songs: Ohia albums (still don’t have The Lioness, probably to my own fault). We spent the entire car ride talking about Molina, his recent struggles, the different circumstances under which we’d seen him live, the connection, the deep, unyielding connection we had with certain songs of his. The funny thing about Molina’s songs and the music that accompanies him is that it isn’t meant for or built on such connections. Songs often contain only enough space for Molina, an eerie light source, some of that ghost sound or blues sound. With rare exceptions like “Being in Love” and “Captain Badass,” Molina songs exist without
Next, US-27, driving out of Cincinnati, the sky a cup of coffee
spilling perpetually. Then, road-side, We saw a stage.
A stiff-lapelled MC waved. We tucked, rolled into slush-felling dark.
He told clean jokes, then, with a gloved hand,
summoned a clean cut group of executioners. Someone clawed at the walls
You squeezed my coat sleeve as bullets took flight.
You can’t think of Jason Molina as a perfectionist, because it seems he didn’t think perfection was a reasonable goal. Songs titles like “Almost Was Good Enough” suggest as much. It’s why images (Ghosts, Highways, Bells, Moons, The Blues, Chicago) appear again and again- Molina wasn’t expecting things to work out perfect. He just wanted to say it the best way he could, and so he was willing to try, again and again, with the same words, the same themes. It’s the beautiful coda of Farewell Transmission- “Real truth about it is, no one gets it right.Real truth about it is, we’re all supposed to try.” In addition to stitching such ongoing themes themes throughout his songs, he perpetually reworked songs he had already recorded. Like the best poets, but unlike most songwriters, you get the idea with Molina the song wasn’t finished just because it had been recorded.
The voice your are now hearing is marrow.
living cement. Also, casing–the composure
that accompanies the ghost story it tells. The casing
is highways jointing out from teratomic lands like Iowa
and Indianapolis. Miles of exits with no services. The voice
you are not hearing prefers air travel,
not being a wet blanket, being heard.
The voice you are now hearing
is swaddled. Has been since birth
in soaked sheets
until it stopped shaking.
But that’s wrong. Jason Molina sucked at stage banter, came off cagey. I heard from friends around Bloomington that he was a closed book much more than he was open. At least in these songs, that wasn’t him. Listen to what he does with Scout Nibblet and Will Johnson here. He lets them in. All the way.
How does stuff like this happen? It’s been months since the newest Magnolia Electric Company album came out, and somehow I wrote lukewarm things about at least a few other albums before even mentioning this one?
I think at this point, everyone’s got their favorite Magnolia Electric Company album (ok, every Magnolia Electric Company fan has their favorite), and before the release of Josephine, mine was the group’s second album, What Comes After The Blues. While their debut, the blistering live album Trials and Errors, was a more potent and forceful album, What Comes After The Blues felt ethereal. It was a worn down album, one which strove to answer the question of its title, but could only come up with dust and steel girders roasting in the sun and remnants. It’s a quiet album that captures the same kind of timeless skeletal beauty as Calexico. I didn’t dislike Fading Trails or the massive Soujourner box set, but they didn’t resonate the same way Blues did.
Just like Magnolia Electric Company was a radically different beast than Songs: Ohia, songwriter/singer Jason Molina’s prior group, each Magnolia Electric Company album has been a pretty radical shift from the one before it. And the group’s newest album, Josephine, is as immediate and pop focused as any Molina has put his name to. The songs hear emanate both warmth and immediacy; but even while these songs are straightforward and, dare I say, poppy, they still posses that ghostly nature that makes Molina such an intriguing songwriter and vocalist. I still love …Blues, and at 15 tracks, Josephine has a bit of fat that could’ve been trimmed, but I think got a new fav. Electric Co. album.
I just picture Molina, the whole group actually, as cowboys out of time and place, staring off towards silent soybean fields from the back window of a rusted econoline. It’s nice to get something so instantly gratifying that also has enough to it to warrant repeat listens. Here’s the scope of this album:
It’s video’s like this that make me go back and reevaluate albums I had dismissed: a teenage orchestra covering a song from Centro-Matic’s last album.
Tomorrow (well, post-sundown tomorrow) a bit of gushing about Yo La Tengo, post amazing Roseland concert.