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.
Note: Discerning readers will notice I skipped “Part 2” of my best of the year extravaganza. The reason for this is because I wanted to get my best of done in time to submit it to the Hype Machine list feature. The reason I do this site is because I love the music I’m writing about, and if, by submitting my list, I happened to allow a few more people to listen to and perhaps purchase the music that moved me this year, that’d just be swell.
Verbatim from last year: Everyone can do year end blurbs. Blurbs are, frankly, dime a dozen, and quite honestly, who needs ‘em- you can listen to the songs and get all the stuff. Here’s some writing about some music that I loved this year.
It’s hard to add an exclamation point to “malaise,” but I’m starting to think there’s little Thao Nguyen and her band The Get Down Stay Down can’t add her clanky rhythms and smokey voice (a vertiable exclamation point) to. While her first album tackled the blunt stuff: heartbreak, joy, childhood, Know Better Learn Faster is a little more complex. Its topics are listed, on an old boring magnet on your half broken fridge: having responsibilities, slowly growing out of love, the terrible aftertaste and terrible view from the top of a one night stand. The music, likewise, isn’t sugar coated. It satisfies like bakers chocolate- the longer it sits and the more time you spend the sweeter it gets. This is the group’s second album in 2 years and their second time appearing on my best of list. I can see no reason that either of these things should stop at any point soon.
“Know Better Learn Faster” and “But What of the Strangers” are from Thao and the Get Down Stay Down’s album Know Better Learn Faster.
I don’t care about what the cool kids did or did not say in this case. My real question: why weren’t Florence and the Machine all over Z100 this year? In a year when pop got weird, I’m shocked there wasn’t room at our country’s microphone for Florence Welch, whose voice is a drink, not even a cheap drink or a first drink, thrown across the room in one of those slow motion Matrix sequences, and the Machine, who back Miss Welch with all the abandon of a careening Kia with occupied baby seat in the back. This is passion somehow being wrapped up by composure. This album is built upon a synthetic approximation of a beating heart. (I’m writing about the EP because I don’t have the full length. I can only assume it’s as good as this EP.)
“Dog Days are Over” and “You’ve Got The Love” are from Florence and the Machine’s EP A Lot of Love, A Lot of Blood.
Consider Kurt Vonnegut and Berkley Breathed. Two people who saw the world and thought to hold up a mirror to it. We were shocked and thought, “they must be using one of those carnival fun house mirrors” and laughed and said “Oh, I read there stuff when i was in high school.” Years of being trivialized or ignored took their tolls on the beautifully surreal visions of these two men, causing both to become cranky, topical, and, worst of all, irrelevant. Consider Robyn Hitchcock, whose been holding up that very same mirror for years, and has never faltered, watered down or compromised. He’s asked us in once again for tea to have a look at it. It would do us a lot of good to listen to him.
Scientists can (and, if there are any who read this site, will) prove me wrong about this one, but over the lifespan of our human lives, the mountains we see will not change. They will simply amass all the combined footwork that walks across their paths and look majestic for photos for calendars put up in office break rooms to remind employees on their worst days that, even if god’s not in the picture, there is something bigger, much bigger than us. And, because mountains will not change, there are plenty of people who feel they don’t need to visit a mountain twice. These people think that they’ve seen it once already, and there are roller coasters they haven’t been strapped into yet. But here’s the thing about unchanging beauty; if you give it a second or third visit, use it’s postcards as bookmarks and stare at a different part every time, new things will emerge A mountain is too big to give it all away at first, and you are too small to catalog everything at first. This is my argument: Let us revisit our mountains.
“OK. well, obviously there are mutes and people who disprove what I’m about to say, but in general, the voice is how we communicate things. The way we speak, the way vowels come out differently, it’s just as much a part of who we are as, I don’t know, our eyebrows or our temper. Sometimes our voices matter just as much as what they’re saying.”
“My opponent argues that there is truth in the voice; that despite not being able to speak a common language, speech binds us altogether. I won’t disagree with that, but I think it binds us all together in failure. There’s such a limit to what the voice can express, and I think my opponent inherently denies the perversion that occurs when we put thoughts into language. The amount of stuff that’s lost is a pretty big roadblock to any true understanding of what anyone’s talking about ever.”
“Well, I think I pretty well understand what you’re saying when you say that, but I think that in itself proves my point. You said something, you used your voice, and I understood it.”
“I don’t think you got the half of it.”
“Philip, Philbert, come over hear. Your mother and I have been talking…Philbert, stop cleaning the window….I don’t care if the queen herself was looking at it, I’m trying to speak to you…Phillip, take your finger out of your ear…both of you, just sit down and listen. Now perhaps your mother and I bare some of the blame for the way you turned out; it probably wasn’t a great idea to name identical twins Philip and Philbert, and we probably should have realized it wasn’t a good idea to dress you two the same until you were seven, but god, to think you would turn out to be such polar opposites, we couldn’t have possible known that. Now tomorrow is your first day of high school, and you’re both enrolled in the same classes, so I wanted to give you the best advice iI could think of. Philbert, you’re three minutes older so you first.
Ok, put away the Purell. Now I appreciate how clean and organized you are, but you’ve. Well, son, some people would say you’re no fun. An example? Well, how long did you spend parting your hair today? Ok, well a lot of kids your age could have spent those 45 minutes playing guitar or playing catch with their old man…No, it looks very nice. I’m sure it is even. I’m not doubting you. I’m just saying, as much as you can, try to loosen up. Maybe you could take up the trumpet, or take up smoking, or think up a cool nickname for yourself like “the razzmaster.” It was just a suggestion.
Philip, my advice to you…are you wearing a potato sack? There are better places to put your lunch than…ok, just listen to me for a minute or two. Your mother are concerned that you’re having a bit too much fun. Remember when you rode the neighbor’s Saint Bernard to Dairy Queen last summer? Well, yes, no one is doubting that it could support your weight. The problem is the fleas. No, they’re not your friends. No, they’re not. Philip, my advice to you is to clean up a bit, maybe have just one or two shirts without lucky food stains on them.
I’m not saying both of you should lose who you are. That’s what makes you special. But if both of you, just a bit, tried to even out, find an in-between I think it might be interesting to see what might happen.”
Charlie Dreams of Colors
Sinning. Yellow drips its way
into someone’s bloodstream and makes them
rip up their child’s artwork and Yellow makes them
go into their child’s room and Yellow makes them
tell them their pictures are terrible, that they can’t draw life, still
or otherwise. Blue pushes a bottle off the shelf
into waiting hands, while red locks the door. Purple
cut the phone lines and closed the curtains. White
took out the sky and Black pinched up all the water.
Greens the one who has to explain everything to the passersby
Charlie looks at Green in horror and pain,
but Gray’s beat him to the punch,
stole all the words.
(a brief moment of levity: The shift in tone, style, production, in general the sheer amount of progress Scott Bondy made between last year’s American Hearts and this album knocks the blood out of my head. It took him a year to produce this. I have no concept of where he will go from here, but I’m excited to find out.)
I think I got it right the first time with this one. “Anni Rossi’s new album Rockwell teeters. It’s an egg teetering on the point of a sharpened pencil. It’s a word left teetering on our spit covered larynx at the end of the evening. It teeters. The interesting and arresting thing about her Viola playing is how often it sounds like she’s messing up, hiting wrong notes momentarily, and how well these “mistakes” blend into and increase the fragility and lighter-flame-thin tension that these songs posses. Her lyrics are unusual, in a good way, but she sings them as though they will break your heart.”
“Machine” and “Glaciers” are from Anni Rossi’s album Rockwell.
Sometimes you worry a little bit after the debut. A band or an artists releases an overwhelming, emotionally saturated album, and you think, “how can they top this?” The problem is exacerbated if there’s a back story tied to the initial album, a story of life that pointedly provoked the album you’re listening to. So maybe it makes sense that on his second album, Elvis Perkins retreats away from his spotlight, sharing the billing with his band In Dearland. That’s not to say Perkins’ urgent, precise voice and nonlinear, poetic lyrics aren’t still present on his album. It’s just to say he’s got bassist and a guitarist and, man, what a drummer, who’s sometimes just playing one of those big drums your marching band plays. Rather than having everything fall on a concept or a story or emotional barbells, Elvis Perkins’ second album, and the debut by Elvis Perkins in Dearland stands high as a basketfull of creative, intelligent, folk and rock songs. Some of these songs sit fall alseep on the back row of the bus, some of which run 10 blocks in wooden clogs to catch that very same bus, and, even then, when it won’t stop, they just grab hold to a piece of jutting metal on the door and go flying.
“Hey” and “1 2 3 Goodbye” are from Elvis Perkins in Dearland’s self titled album.
Hearing the first version of “Learned To Surf” made me feel like my life was a hit movie, a movie some critics would call saccharine, but which, those critics would acknowledge, was based on a true story. Hearing the second version of “Learned To Surf” made me feel 5 years old again- sing me a song and then I promise I’ll go to bed. I promise. Everything in between covers the space between those two things.
Want to know what’s infuriating to me? If The Reigning Sound’s last album hadn’t been the volcanic Too Much Guitar, this might have very well been my favorite album of the year. That album sweated and screamed and stuck its junk right in your face, and you liked it. Love and Curses, the band’s new album still rocks, it screams sometimes, but it doesn’t jump off the stage in a flying karate kick. But that’s the last time I’ll make that comparison, because Love and Curses is still my favorite rock and roll album from this year. Greg Cartwright and company are clearly having fun doing something they’re very good at, and the results sound confident, brash, lovelorn, and, at times, fucking loud. “Dangerous Game” forces the listener to play follow the melody for all minute thirty six of its length. “Break it” and “Debris” are wounded as much as they are taut. While the title of the album hint’s at its disposition and its conclusion, the groups loss and frustration and hindsight get all revved up in the music. Somehow this group manages to make resignation sound like proud defiance.
The worst thing about Neko Case up until Middle Cyclone was that the best of her songs were some of the best, deepest, most stirring songs. Period, no qualifier needed after the word “songs.” “Star Witness,” five minutes and 17 seconds long from her last album, has inspired well thought out academic papers, for example, and could inspire full length films, paintings, novels, or bloodshot drives towards a compas point. She wrote some of the finest songs, but couldn’t write an album of them. The best thing about Middle Cyclone is that she actually did it with no qualifiers, ifs, ands or buts. Thematically unified, Middle Cyclone is the most consistent, accessible, fierce, evocative album Case has created so far in her career. This album feels gigantic. Case’s voice has never sounded better, and her songwriting has never been stronger. “It’s a dirty fallow feeling to be the dangling ceiling from when the roof came crashing down” Case sings on one song. “Can’t scrape together quite enough to ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love.” She sings on another. These are the lines of a wordsmith, and Case stretches her voice around them wholly. This is an epic, beautiful, sometimes terrifying, always engaging album. Just spectacular.
“Middle Cyclone” and “Red Tide” are from Neko Case’s album Middle Cyclone.
At the beginning of one of my favorite books, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, there’s an introduction which describes a cranky, lonely old author who is looking for someone to talk to, and a carpenter who builds the writer a bed. As the carpenter builds, the writer tells him his thoughts on life. He believes that, at one point, there were truths in the world, the truth of beauty, the truth of honesty, the truth of forgiveness, but that people took up these truths like they were animals to be domesticated, and as people claimed these truths as their own, they became grotesques. Anderson remarks, of the writer, “it was the young thing inside him which saved him” from becoming a grotesque himself.
At the beginning of Comet Gain’s new album, Broken Records Prayers, they tell you, “We have torn ideals. Comet Gain have torn ideals.” That’s what they tell you on track one. I cannot think of one other rock band who would claim to have ideals, much less the beauty of realizing how torn those ideals must be. Not a single other band.
I’d say there’s a fourty percent chance that Catfish isn’t alive today.
Nearly a year ago to the day, I was on an Amtrak heading down to New Orleans to visit some friends and get away from the life-shaped straight jacket that I woke up in most every single day in Michigan. It was a wonderful, memoried trip, but New Year’s Eve sticks out and almost feels separate from the whole experience. The friends I was visiting and I walked from the bywater, (where they were renting a small house as they waited for other plans to ring the doorbell or arrive via airmail), to downtown where we watched whatever object it is that the people of New Orleans watch drop from a tall building. The crowd mulled and danced afterward, and two of my friends got handed a dimebag by a guy who called himself Catfish. We were drunk, all of us, and so following Catfish around New Orleans for hours to bars and liquor stores and through streets that grew increasingly less crowded as the hours mounted seemed good and it seemed right. At one point, when we must have been halfway across the city and halfway towards sobriety, Catfish said to us “I’ll take you to where I live,” which only seemed only half right and half good, but we went anyway. Ended up back at the big park right downtown, right by the Mississippi, where we had started. sitting there, now almost too exhausted to be angry or scared or happy, Catfish said at one point “I had a gun this morning. I was going to kill myself today, but then I met you guys.” Soon after that, we started walking home. The next day was quiet, we went to a dog park and ate once or twice, but mostly it was quiet.
I tell the story because Hurray for the Riff Raff are from New Orleans, I found out about them from some over-inked music zine they give out in coffee shops down there, but also because the wonder and sadness of the story is what the band specialize. The wonder of pure human connection and the sadness of the static that interrupts those connections are the songs on It Don’t Mean I Don’t Love You, Hurray For the Riff Raff’s first albums. Oftentimes there’s overlap; “Baby Blue” starts off like a spool of wire unwinding in the dark, and builds to two people so close they can’t even see each other clearly, before it breaks apart again. “Amelia’s Song,” likewise is made of words celebratory and mournful “you’re not made of stone, you’re made of honey. and you can’t be consumed by my life.” The honesty in that letting go is heart-rending.
The songs tell stories, but the music makes those stories vivid, and I can’t think of an album that is better composed, played, produced, mixed, or mastered (i can never really tell you the difference between those last three) this year. Everything is where it should be here, sounding crisp but also casual. There are no flourishes because nothing on this album happens suddenly. Things ebb in and temper out like it’s the most natural thing in the world. If it wasn’t such a weighty album I’d say it sounds like it was recorded live on a porch in back of an engagement party.
I can’t think back to Catfish too much at this point or I go too deep in and want to buy a plane ticket back down to Nola and find him to make sure he never followed through with his new years eve plan. I hope that, at some point this year, he heard this album playing out a window or from an open car door or an overhead speaker somewhere. I think it might touch him, too.
“Fly Away” and “Bricks” are from Hurray For The Riff Raff’s album It Don’t Mean I Don’t Love You.
So The Reigning Sound and Molina and Johnson. Molina and Johnson first.
This is one I’m frothing for, which is dumb. Jason Molina is the singer/guitarist/songwriter for The Magnolia Electric Company and Songs: Ohia, and Will Johnson is the singer/guitarist/songwriter for Centro-Matic (one of my favorite bands) and South San Gabriel (one of my favorite side projects). It’s dumb to get excited about this, because everything about it screams casual. The press release Secretly Canadian has given did all but tell you “seriously guys, don’t get too hopped up about this one. It was just 10 days, really, and all the guys did was jam.” The first MP3 that’s been given out “Twenty Circles to the Ground” follow’s through with the press releases prediction, windshield wiper drummer and low gas flame guitar plus Molina’s gravelin gravedigger singing open mic at a bar in west Texas voice. It’s a great song, but it’s about as inauspicious as they could’ve gone, both as an initial public offering from their label and as the leadoff track on the album. Getting too excited for this is forcing yourself to drink three cans of sparks even though you hate the stuff and ride a tandem bike (solo) across town to what you think is going to be the rager of the year, only to find two close friends sitting under christmas lights shooting the shit and the two of them just can’t stop laughing. Still, despite the potential health risk involved, I’m standing firm, and getting more hyped than the hype machine about this one. It comes out on election day on Secretly Canadian.
I wonder if there are scientists obsessed with vocal chords of singers; whether some maniac in a lab coat exhumed Patsy Cline to see what makes a singer sing heartbreak or x-rayed Elliott Smith to see how every word he sings sounds more passive aggressive than the last. Because anyone can sing anything, but there’s something, and I’ll leave it to the scientists to figure out what, that makes a singer just sell a song. Garage rock’s a genre where more than most, there’s a lot resting on the singer, because the music of most garage rock bands is interchangeable, punk meets blues in the break room of a steel fabrication shop and the two throw down their coffee cups and start tearing at eachother’s guts. You need something to steer the music, to shape it. Greg Cartwright, more than any other singer in the genre that I know of, makes you feel the words. His voice tears itself out for some of these songs. Greg’s voice can be defiant, angry, wounded, and, on the rarest of occasions, something approaching alright. Greg’s current band, The Reigning Sound just released a new album this year, and while it won’t quite submerge you like their last, Too Much Guitar, the nuances gives it a greater range.
Put another way: here’s greg’s live take (and then, the full band version) on his song “Stop and Think It Over.” Here’s The Hives performing the same song in front of, probably 20,000 fans. Just look at what the vocals do her