Songs: Ohia – Magnolia Electric Co. (Secretly Canadian – 2003)

For Songs: Ohia’s Jason Molina, ‘the road’ is the metaphor which frames our understanding of landscape, experience and emotion; the same road in which Kerouac saw the crumbling American dream. It is the unending trail of discovery and recrimination juxtaposed with a harsh Midwestern wilderness, replete with gothic folklore from long forgotten superstitions. His seventh and final album under the Songs: Ohia moniker saw what had started as a stark DIY project, end with a full band and the joy of recording under the watchful eye of legendary audiophile Steve Albini in Chicago, before promptly changing their name, contrarily enough, to Magnolia Electric Co. Confused? Perhaps it’s best that way, for far be it from Molina to offer answers, only glimpses into fluctuating shades of darkness and the soul of Americana which goes beyond tokenistic plaid.

Album opener ‘Farewell Transmission’ starts with just such promises of oblique threat as an apocalyptic warning that ‘the whole place is dark, every light on this side of the town, suddenly it all went down’, before later intoning retribution, having been spurned: ‘I’ll streak his blood across my beak and dust my feathers with his ash.’ This is no introspection of the down on luck, lovelorn soul in a sprawling metropolis; this is the America of Poe, Hawthorne and Lovecraft, of Crazy Horse and in some ways reminiscent of the same south that the Drive-By Truckers have spent much of their work trying to evoke. At its conclusion and through the malaise of lapsteel and three part harmonies, Molina demands that we ‘listen’, over and over until we are left in doubt as to whether we should be sympathetic, questioning or simply fearful of those ‘long dark blues’.

Musically, it’s the simplicity at the heart of the performances that drive the dark heart of the lyrics, with Jeff Pannall’s drums echoing the no frills approach of the likes of Ralph Molina, while Jennie Benford’s backing vocals summon up the tragically cut short partnership of Gram Parsons and Emmy-Lou Harris, as she casts a supporting shadow over the reoccurring motif of ‘the road’.  The bitter irony of perennial nomad Molina questioning ‘why put a new address on the same old loneliness’ on ‘Just Be Simple’, while the molasses-thick guest vocals of Lawrence Peters on old the country waltz ‘The Old Black Hen’ speak of the ‘bad luck lullaby’ and an almost perpetual darkness present from childhood. British born Will Oldham collaborator Scout Niblett provides the album’s second guest lead vocals, providing typically otherworldly pathos in with ‘Peroria Lunchbox Blues’, lamenting a loss of childlike innocence.

The closing tracks of the album perhaps best sum-up Molina’s world and his influences entrenched in the myth of the developing America, one built like Steinbeck novel, through the perspiration and heartbreak of the working man on ‘John Henry Split My Heart’. John Henry, the American folk hero who raced against a steam powered hammer and won, only then to die hammer in hand, struck a blow for the common man against unstoppable dehumanising mechanisation, with nought but his own strength, is invoked against a ‘Rust Never Sleeps’-era Neil Young guitar fuzz, as the road and Molina’s heart takes one last blow. This musical violence is in sharp contrast to the fragility of string-laden closer ‘Hold On Magnolia’, with Molina once again seeking ‘that great highway moon… before the dark finally gets a hold on me.’ It an album often full of such stark brutality, it’s the light at the end of the tunnel which becomes the most tragic. Perhaps for all of us, it’s the hope we can’t stand.

For Jason Molina, the clear need for inertia is all consuming. Currently a resident of London, having lived for various periods of time in 33 cities across the US, he has fallen strangely silent since the release of 2009’s ‘Josephine’. While for some artists this may seem par for the course, but when you consider the 15 other album releases in the 12 years which preceded it, there is undoubtedly concern about his current sabbatical due to an undisclosed illness. Perhaps, as The Band’s Robbie Robertson ruefully explains on Scorsese’s ‘The Last Waltz’, that he had to stop touring because it was tempting fate to be on the road that long, it’s that Molina merely needs to see some home comfort. Irrespective, this is an album of broken hearts, broken promises and a journey into those ‘long dark blues.’

James Tiernan

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David Crosby – If I Could Only Remember My Name (Atlantic – 1971)

When Gene Clark’s troubled brilliance checked out of The Byrds in 1966, it left David Crosby’s syrupy baritone, which for all of the obvious guitar talents of Roger McGuinn, as the remaining great voice in one of groups who helped to define the close harmony sounds that emanated from the hazy glamour of Los Angeles at the end of that decade and into the next. While far from one of the primary songwriters in the early days of the band from which he would eventually be sacked the following year, his notable contributions to the joyously fractious Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s eponymous debut and then Deja Vu with notorious misanthrope Neil Young, hinted at not only the great singer and bon viveur, but a songwriter whose compositions could match his ego. The tracks penned for those albums are archetypes of what are presented as shorthand for the counter culture concerns of the period, from threats of nuclear war in ‘Wooden Ships’; cries of revolution in ‘Long Time Gone’; long hair as a thinly veiled metaphor of non-conformity in the face of ‘the man’ in ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ and general wistful expressions of soul searching in the likes of ‘Guinnevere’ and ‘Deja Vu’. His solo debut expanded on these themes and with an assorted cast of the who’s who of the Laurel Canyon scene, it became an initially critically lambasted album which has become recognised as a curious minor classic of the period.

The album was recorded with a large ensemble cast preposterously nicknamed the ‘Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra’ and in addition to Nash and Young making appearances, it also featured members of The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and CSN&Y muse Joni Mitchell. Album opener ‘Music Is Love’ simultaneously showcases the album’s strengths and weaknesses, with the chiming open-tuned guitars of Crosby, Nash and Young singing ‘Everybody’s saying that music is love’ in a round that is both gorgeous, but retrospectively hamstrung by wishy-washy hippy sentiments and therefore the cynical listener is left wondering whether they can suspend their disbelief and embrace the innocence of the author. The song that follows, ‘Cowboy Movie’, is far from innocent, using the extended metaphor that the title suggests to explore a tale of deceit and betrayal over the love of a woman, in this case strongly suggested by most biographers to be former Crosby, and later Graham Nash partner Joni Mitchell, to the backdrop of an extended groove in the vein of the previous year’s ‘Almost Cut My Hair’, and the sound that characterised much of the notable moments of Neil Young’s 1969 album ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.’ While hardly aggressive, it’s the only one moment of even threatening to explore conventional rock music on an album which uses tonal shifts rather than bludgeoning with sheer force.

The aforementioned Mitchell casts a shadow over much of the album, whether it the aforementioned autobiographical impact or in adding her distinctive vocals to what are the more conventional elements of the album. Certainly, her soprano harmonies at the end of the luxurious ‘Laughing’ add enjoyable counterpoint to the deeper bass rumblings of Crosby’s voice, while she also makes her mark on the somewhat impotent anger of ‘What Are Their Names.’ Powered by some startling guitar interplay between Neil Young and Jerry Garcia which would put Tortoise, Slint et al to shame, the choir which dramatically, but somewhat ludicrously demands to know who the men are ‘that really run this land’, so that they can ‘give them a piece of my mind, about peace for mankind’, is earnest and heartfelt, but does conjure up images of railing against ‘the man’ for ‘the war’, while vanishing in a cloud of paranoia. A little like eating sausages, it is perhaps best to simply enjoy, rather than look too closely at what is actually there and how it was produced.

It’s perhaps the instrumental, or at least less conventional pieces on the album which make it stand out from its contemporaries. ‘Tamalpais High (At About 3)’ is all jazzy tones and bebopping along like the sound of a lazy musical researcher aiming to convey the sensation of a smoky beat cafe. The album’s final two songs ‘Orleans’, takes the fifteenth century French nursery rhyme ‘Le Carillon De Vendôme’ and multi-tracks Crosby’s voice into barely recognisable shifts in tone like a proto-Sigur Ros, while album closer ‘I’d Swear There Was Somebody There’ takes this to its logical conclusion; shorn as it is of any instrumentation and, without wishing to unduly evoke memories of Spinal Tap, takes wordless forms in Raga-like fashion to present something which is almost choric in sound. This was a far cry from the man who started his career adding harmonies to covers of folk hits from Dylan or Seeger.

Albums with various permutations of CSN&Y would follow, but this flawed but ambitious album, which came before the druggy excesses that would plague Crosby in the decades that followed, marked the end of his most lucid and engaging period which started with The Byrds ‘Younger Than Yesterday’ and ended here. It may well slip into many of the clichés of the period, but few singers of the time matched the ambition of the album. While it rarely makes many top 100 lists, it did come second in a top 10 list of The Vatican newspaper ‘L’Osservatore Romano’s’ best albums of all time, only losing out to The Beatles ‘Revolver’. For a self-styled iconoclast who once wrote a song about an acid trip in Winchester Cathedral and fathered a child for a lesbian couple, this is a result of sorts and shows that at least ‘the man’ can’t have been that offended.

James Tiernan