Magnolia Electric Co.
am coming to terms with the fact that Magnolia Electric Co.’s Sojourner box set will arrive with a medallion, and I am able to come to terms with it only because Jason Molina is an artist for whom I already suffer peculiar indignities. I have gawkishly approached the man before shows. I have canvassed an old Oberlin acquaintance for early war stories. A couple years back, I sought to spend money I didn’t really have to buy a ridiculously out-of-print tour-only album—now available on eMusic—only to be out-obsessed at the last moment. You see? I don’t make a particularly good nerd, even. Yet there will be a time in the future when someone cracks open my attractive Sojourner package and asks “What’s this?” and my good Christian upbringing will force me to answer “Oh, that’s just my Magnolia Electric Company medallion.”
Originally pitched as a retrospective of Molina’s decade-long career with Secretly Canadian, Sojourner instead is a four-disc set of unreleased material and a tour documentary DVD (unavailable at press time). Much of this material—particularly Nashville Moon and the Sun Sessions—has been in the pipeline since 2005’s What Comes After the Blues. It’s hard to see why, though: Nashville Moon in particular offers little new material, its “recorded by Steve Albini at Electrical Audio” tag also found on the previous two Magnolia releases, from which it pilfers most of its twelve tracks. (Forgive any confusion regarding just which: “Nashville Moon,” “Memphis Moon,” “Spanish Moon Fall and Rise,” “And the Moon Hits the Water,” and “No Moon on the Water,” all from his last two releases.)
Studio versions of live favorites “North Star” and “Don’t This Look Like the Dark,” as well as an overdue electric version of “Hammer Down” are welcome, but ultimately serve as reminders of what Molina’s last two Magnolia albums could’ve been. Sun Sessions comprises four tracks Magnolia recorded at Memphis’s Sun Studio and fares little better. Shame Molina didn’t pay homage with an inspired cover or two: his own productions sound a bit drab given the surroundings.
The meat of the collection then lies in Shohola and Black Ram. Molina keeps putting the hard sell on this “just me and a guitar” labor, as if he didn’t already have an entire decade-long back catalog of mostly the same sauce. At this point in his career it’s the songwriter’s equivalent of tying yourself to a rock and whistling for the vultures.
Shohola goes bravely, though. Molina treads upon his familiar themes of constancy (“Steady Now”) and doomsaying (“Shiloh Temple Bell”), and the man still has a way with a sharp line: “It’s pain / Then pain / That isn’t pain / Then it’s pain that never comes / And the only bridge I haven’t burned / Is the one I’m standing on.” It’s August now, and in September this’ll all make more sense; suffice to know that Shohola finds Molina’s guitar with a notch more treble and his voice less resigned to toil.
Sojourner’s kicker is Black Ram, an album that finally—finally—makes good on the dark psychedelics that churned in Magnolia Electric Co.’s early live shows. I cannot justify a $37 price tag for nine songs, but watch me go anyway. Molina has never written an opener so shimmering and resplendent: he croaks “All the good things are asleep in the human world” like he’s hiding somewhere in the non-human world. “What’s Broken Becomes Better” is significant because it churns in a way that has nothing to do with Neil Young or Creedence.
“Will-O-the-Wisp” jacks the title from Molina’s best-ever studio outtake and “Blackbird” jacks you know, and they’re both permissible because they are blocky and ornate. The title track yawns dark atmospheres and closes its mouth again, slowly. His imagery sheds its country-rock shackles and stomps off its dust: “Who swallows tides when no tides come? / Who binds the names to the nameless ones / The Black Ram she does.” Recorded in Virginia with a completely different group of musicians (including Andrew Bird), the entirety of Black Ram plays out like a group of Molina’s closest friends intervening, imploring that this is texture, give it another go.
Black Ram is better than Magnolia Electric Co.’s previous two studio records combined—not shocking, as in the three years since Molina decimated Songs: Ohia with Magnolia he has jogged himself a brand new rut. Black Ram goes a long way toward climbing out, but it comes with plenty of expensive baggage. Molina disciples will need no such urging: they read (and write!) these reviews to remind themselves that others still soldier on. See also: the title of the box set. I don’t have the conscience to recommend Sojourner to the uninitiated, but as a document of what Molina acolytes already suffer, it’s essential.