Magnolia Electric Co. / Jason Molina
Fading Trails / Let Me Go Let Me Go Let Me Go
C+ / B+
little over two years ago I hit eBay and bid $130 for a rare copy of Songs: Ohia’s tour-only Protection Spells. I was still riding high on Songs: Ohia’s full-bodied, technicolor Nashville release, Magnolia Electric Co., and you could’ve gotten good odds from me that Songs: Ohia frontman Jason Molina would sink into obscurity and irrelevance before dedicating himself to choogling country rock full-time. This is the type of devotion Molina inspired; a consistent, deadened sound, Midwestern mythology, just enough rare stuff to keep your ear to the ground.
Things have changed: Molina adopted the Magnolia moniker full-time, assembling a crack band of rock spearheads, led by frothy lead guitarist Jason Groth. And none of this seemed especially strange until last year’s What Comes After the Blues answered the album title’s question with a resounding “splotchy folk rock, thank you.” Molina now releases somewhere between two and three records a year, and while he’s still an inspired songwriter and vocalist, the limited scope of his persona has been magnified by his beefy release schedule.
We’re led to believe that Molina’s walking a line these days, having his fun with the mates in Magnolia, touring, rocking, drinking, rocking, etc. and still occasionally locking himself in the studio for the type of drug-less, joy-abating slow-folk he built his castle on. Pyramid Electric Co. arrived in time to defuse the storm static Songs: Ohia fans were whipping around Magnolia, and this year’s Fading Trails, another “rock” record with the touring gang, arrives on the heels of last month’s “solo” Let Me Go Let Me Go Let Me Go, which once again mines the slow ‘n’ lonely tropes of early Songs: Ohia material.
The line, however, is drunk and fuzzy: What Comes After… ended with three somber acoustic ballads, and anyone who can differentiate between Fading Trails’ “The Old Horizon” and any of the solo material on Let Me Go probably needs better drugs. Molina’s trying to walk a line between rock music and “serious” songwriting, but he’s either understandably confused about why that line needs to be drawn or taking the piss with a decent marketing ploy. Lean towards the former, obviously, but then struggle like the rest of us with Molina’s growing identity crisis.
Fading Trails succeeds in several places where What Comes After… fails: it’s more defined melodically, relying less on genre aping and more on Molina’s increasing knack for a hook. “Lonesome Valley” allows Molina’s rich tenor to settle into a mid-tempo groove, the kind of song where the lyrics slide slyly into place and simple phrases become memorable moments. When Molina yells “Ohhh / Didn’t we shine” on the resplendent “Memphis Moon,” he digs into the dichotomy between his formulaic songwriting/lyricism and his idiosyncratic voice. The pacing of Fading Trails is also improved, mingling reverberated country radio with Molina’s balladry in equal parts. Still, Molina’s written “Don’t Fade on Me” at least a dozen times in the last two years, and those acoustic tracks are not only indistinguishable from the material on Let Me Go, they’re also indistinguishable amongst themselves. The growing sense that Molina released this record last year—and will probably release it again next year (or sooner: a record titled Nashville Moon is already set to tape)—is frustrating.
Let Me Go is another sepia-toned gloom/strum/gloom set from Molina, it offers in personality and atmosphere what it lacks in originality (there’s not exactly a dearth of this type of material in Molina’s catalog). Whereas a song like “Don’t Fade on Me” seems like a particularly well-executed country rock song, you get the feeling there are only a handful of people with the patience and sadness in their voice to execute “Get Out Get Out Get Out” and not sound like Eeyore eyeing his tail. He plays brilliantly off of dynamics, playing so softly that when an amplifier cracks or a blues phrase materializes it sounds like a flood of noise. The sandy mellotron that sifts through “It Costs You Nothing” seems to offer a wealth of color and expression. Molina is perpetually capable of this kind of misery, but uniquely so. Your autumn needs this record.
Three years on, the promise of Magnolia doom-country has been spliced into dueling extremes: the spacious balladry of Let Me Go and the too-transparent rock of Fading Trails. Whether either can inspire the kind of devotion Molina wrought so easily with his Songs: Ohia project remains to be seen. Molina’s gifts bear more fruit on Let Me Go, but the real question is why Molina feels so compelled to separate his passions in the first place.