Treble 100: No. 96, Songs Ohia – Magnolia Electric Co.

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Songs: Ohia Magnolia Electric Co.

The core of any Songs: Ohia song is Jason Molina’s voice. The late singer/songwriter possessed a vulnerable and powerful tenor, passionate and weathered, warm and weary. At his most hopeful he made his most desperate moments feel like only temporary rest stops on the way toward something better; at his most wounded, he sounded like someone who was constantly followed by ghosts. And he often documented their comings and goings, whether they sat in his passenger seat or crept through the humid breeze and birdsong in the tropics.

Call it a fascinating irony, then, that Molina’s best known album is the one that features lead vocals other than his own. The second side of Magnolia Electric Co.—the bridge between Molina’s earlier, haunted indie folk fare and the full-band recordings that followed—kicks off with “The Old Black Hen” and “Peoria Lunch Box Blues.” In these two songs, Molina steps away from the microphone temporarily to offer the spotlight to two different singers whose vocal range touched places just outside his reach. The former is sung by Lawrence Peters, whose baritone carries the soulful twang of vintage ’70s and ’80s Nashville—a move that proved somewhat divisive at the time, but which in hindsight comes across as a moving tribute to the country (and country rock) that inspired Molina. The latter, sung by English-born singer Scout Niblett, is a slow and melancholy number that you could just as easily imagine Molina himself singing and it being just as beautiful and anguished, but Niblett’s voice stretches up to higher octaves, as if she’s attempting to break sunlight through a cloudy sky with the sound of her voice alone.

To hear voices such as Peters’ and Niblett’s on a Songs: Ohia album might have been disorienting at the time—and to a vocal minority, perhaps less desirable—though it reflects a dramatic shift in how Molina approached his music. Though he’d long worked with a regularly rotating cast of other musicians under the Songs: Ohia name (including on one album being backed by Scotland’s Arab Strap), it for all intents and purposes was a solo project. But Molina had bigger, louder things in mind. Growing up as a teenager in Ohio, Molina played in heavy metal bands with names like Chronic Insanity, and he’d later cover Black Sabbath on two sides of a 7-inch. He was a rocker at heart, and giving into that impulse yielded a record that sounded like it belonged to the vaunted canon of rock music from the moment it was released.

Magnolia Electric Co. conceptually took shape around 2001, when Molina had made plans to record a new set of songs at Electrical Audio in Chicago with Steve Albini. Due to scheduling conflicts with both his band and Albini, Molina ended up tracking his other masterpiece, 2002’s haunting and stark Didn’t It Rain, in Philadelphia instead and began playing a series of solo live performances. But when he reconvened in Chicago with his collaborators—which included violinist Dan Macadam, vocalist/guitarist/mandolin player Jennie Benford and lap steel player Mike Brenner—Molina sprung a surprise on them. They were going to record a rock album based on a set of demos he’d recorded, with two live shows scheduled as pre-tracking preparation and listening to Neil Young’s Harvest as a homework assignment.

The looseness and spontaneity of the live-in-studio Electrical Audio sessions in large part is what makes them as revelatory as they are—music this gloriously ragged is ruined by overpolish and over-rehearsing. (Any suggestion of the Grateful Dead in the band’s name is likely intentional.) There’s not a bum note in the batch, but it’s music cultivated from a kind of psychic, instinctive performance rather than strict, disciplined preparation. Albini watched an entirely new band of sorts take shape before him, describing the session coming together to The Quietus as “stage band developing a band identity as opposed to feeling like they were just playing the songs for Jason.” And though it at the time was considered the final Ohia record, fittingly, when Molina’s label Secretly Canadian received the finished tapes, full of rich, hoarse and husky rock ‘n’ roll music rather than threadbare ballads, the label on them read “Not Songs: Ohia.”

The album’s leadoff track “Farewell Transmission” makes it clear that this is something else entirely from Molina’s quieter, more spectral solo material. No better song could have introduced this new band to the world, its more-than-seven-minutes of glory, dust and defeat kicking up a righteous cloud that feels both cleansing and murky. Its lead riff, played by Mike Brenner, already seems legendary and simultaneously doesn’t seem old enough to be turning 20 in 2023. And it came about simply enough, Brenner simply employing the melody that Molina had been singing on the demo, as mentioned on Tim’s Twitter Listening Party in 2020.

Within Molina’s vocals, however, there’s something much more ominous at play than simply rock ‘n’ roll. Even through his earthy, comforting tone, he delivers an impressionistic portrait of a world seemingly coming to an end: “The whole place is dark, every light on this side of the town/Suddenly it all went down.” And when the end comes, it comes carried like a carcass in the mouth of a predator, not unlike the owl-like creature illustrated by William Schaff for its cover art: “Mama, here comes midnight with the dead moon in its jaws.” Molina surely recognized the irony of employing a song about an ostensibly spectacular ending as an introduction, and even insisted to the band that it be up front in live setlists contrary to any suggestion that it be an encore. But there’s really no better choice to establish what Magnolia Electric Co. the album and, by extension Magnolia Electric Co. the band, is: Rowdy yet weary dispatches shot through with aching twinges of genuine loneliness and Molina’s unique penchant for fabulism. And it’s not a short introduction, either, stretching out for more than seven minutes as it slowly and gradually grinds to a halt, a call-and-response between a refrain of “long dark blues” and Molina’s spoken request: “Listen.”

Where predecessor Didn’t It Rain was pocked with glimmers of the late-night city lights of Chicago and the flames crowning factory towers along the drive back to Bloomington, Magnolia Electric Co. gazes straight through the windshield toward the road ahead. One album took snapshots of where he was, and the other where he’s headed, often hellbent on making it there. On the eerie and blustery “I’ve Been Riding With a Ghost,” Molina’s demons ride shotgun, and he’s determined to find somewhere else to leave them on his journey, but he does so with an acknowledgement of the damage already catalogued: “None of them would love me if they ever thought they would lose me/Unless I made a change.”

The bittersweet country-rock ballad “Just Be Simple” likewise acknowledges a yearning for redemption, but he stops short of ever finding salvation for himself. “You’ll never hear me talk about one day getting out/Why put a new address on the same old loneliness?” He finds a similar need and inability to extract himself from such a morass on “Almost Was Good Enough” (“A new season has to begin“), but bolstered by stormy layers of guitars at his back. And before a new morning can arrive, the dark times only get darker; the greatest tempest of them all erupts in “John Henry Split My Heart,” tearing through Route 66 and once again finding Molina singing his long dark blues as the big star’s about to fall.

But there’s a brief glimpse of sunlight over the horizon on “Hold On Magnolia,” the album’s closer and most sweetly heartbreaking plea. “No one has to be that strong/But if you’re stubborn like me, I know what you’re trying to be,” he sings, offering an inward-facing directive amid the album’s most beautifully aching melody. That it’s the most hopeful song here also in a way makes it the saddest; Molina died only two weeks after the 10th anniversary of Magnolia Electric Co. after a long struggle with alcoholism. When I reached out to Wild Pink’s John Ross last year about his favorite Songs: Ohia song, he chose this one: “It’s a journey both musically and lyrically, and seems to touch on both hope and despair at the same time in a way I’ve never really heard before.” To borrow Molina’s own words, “It ain’t hallelujah but it may as well have been.”

That observation holds true for just about any of Molina’s songs, wrought from hard-earned lessons and facing down defeat, but bolstered by resolve. The method of delivery changed; performing these songs with an actual rock band—distortion, riffs, badassery and all—wrapped them in a kind of armor, a rough exterior wrapped around the wounds at its core. Those wounds aren’t hidden either. Magnolia Electric Co. was a band, but its perspective reflected that of a songwriter broadcasting a unique blend of sadness and gritty optimism. Even when it comes through a singer such as Peters or Niblett, channeled through different timbral conduits, it’s still Molina’s voice that we hear. Listen.

Magnolia Electric Co.

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