By some strange coincidence, several months ago I had purchased copies of Neil Young’s On the Beach and Songs: Ohia’s Magnolia Electric Co. on the same day. While there’s a perfectly rational explanation (mainly, my desire to listen to some good ol’ fashioned American guitar rock), I’ve been trying to convince myself that, perhaps, there was some sort of divine intervention involved. By the grace of some higher power, I was drawn to Jason Molina’s melancholy baritone and Neil Young’s biting cynicism. The two share more than a few sonic similarities. And what Young was to many in the seventies (and still), Molina, unquestionably, is to numbers of young indie rockers, albeit ones with a jones for classic rock.
There’s no doubt about Molina’s talent as a songwriter, nor the influence that Neil Young plays on that very songwriting. And much like Young, Molina isn’t afraid to change course in mid-career, dropping the Martin and trading it in for a Les Paul. But Molina hasn’t been playing music nearly as long as Young has, which makes the comparison a little too era specific. What Comes After the Blues isn’t Molina’s Trans or Arc. He hasn’t voiced his (occasionally bi-polar) bitter political vitriol in song, nor has he made albums specifically to piss off his label (or fans, whether it be intentional or not). For some reason, I just don’t see Secretly Canadian making too many enemies.
That said, What Comes After the Blues could be seen as the Zuma to Magnolia Electric Co.‘s On the Beach. And Trials And Errors, Magnolia Electric Co.’s Tonight’s the Night was sandwiched in-between. There are plenty of sonic comparisons to be made, and like Zuma, What Comes After the Blues is pretty darned good. But it’s no On the Beach.
The first three tunes on Blues are some of the best songs in the Molina catalog, no matter what era we’re talking. “The Dark Don’t Hide It” is a powerful, inspired rock `n’ roll opener with, by far, the catchiest chorus on the record. In this song, Molina flexes his lyrical muscle, mixing wit with world-weary philosophies and downright cynicism:
“Now the world was empty on the day they made it
But heaven needed a place to throw all the shit
Human hearts and pain should never be separate
They’d tear themselves apart just trying to fit”
The follower, “The Night Shift Lullaby,” with its female vocal lead courtesy of Jennie Benford, sounds more like Fleetwood Mac as Benford duets with Molina, bearing a striking resemblance to that of Nicks and Buckingham some years ago. And “Leave the City” automatically gets points for the best arrangement, as a piano, trumpet and lap steel open the song into an upbeat but melancholy alt-country sound. From there, the album goes into a lazier, laid back direction, as the beautiful folky “Hard to Love a Man” segues into the slow, bluesy “Give Something Else Away Every Day.”
The final three songs, however, revert back to the Songs: Ohia sound of old — stripped down, acoustic and quiet. It’s almost as if the band disappeared during the end of the recording process. “Northstar Blues” is the most densely layered of the three, sounding like one of Will Oldham’s quieter moments, while “Hammer Down” and “I Can Not Have Seen the Light” are far simpler, but nonetheless pretty tunes.
Jason Molina has been playing music for a long time. He’s recorded several albums under several different names, and as it so happens, most of them deserve your attention. But his career hasn’t yielded as high an output as Neil Young, no matter how many similarities the two performers may have. And as such, there’s not as much of a division between the good and the great, though thankfully, there don’t seem to be any throwaways either. What Comes After the Blues, however, falls more under good than great, but it’s still pretty damned good. And it sure as hell isn’t Trans.
My Morning Jacket – It Still Moves
Son Volt – Trace
Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Zuma
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.