“The Magnolia Electric Co.” reissue
Too few people knew the names Songs: Ohia or Magnolia Electric Co., but those who did will remember where they were the morning of March 26, 2013, when word reached them that Jason Molina had died at age 39 from organ failure.
The Ohio-born musician’s 2003 full-length “The Magnolia Electric Co.” would deserve tenth anniversary reissue treatment no matter what — yet in light of Molina’s passing, the double-CD set arrives Tuesday as a bittersweet memento of a career cut short.
From his early 20s onward, the singer-songwriter-guitarist issued a prolific stream of lo-fi albums, singles and EPs under the alias Songs: Ohia. Though he recorded mostly alone with electric guitar, he employed a four-piece band for 2002’s stellar “Didn’t it Rain.”
On “Magnolia,” he fortified that band with several more members and gave it a name, The Magnolia Electric Co. — the Crazy Horse to his Neil Young.
Also in Molina’s corner was Chicagoan analog guru Steve Albini, who offered the band a comfortable atmosphere, good microphones, half-inch tape and patience, to let the music speak for itself.
Though Molina’s songs always sounded old, they weren’t retro so much as classic rock for a future generation. His plain-spoken musings on love, loss and redemption in rural fields and rust-belt cities made listeners feel they knew the American heartland, even if they’d never been.
And that voice. That voice. Molina was only 29 when he made “Magnolia,” but his warm, expansive lilt — whether casually speak-singing, or belting it out — was as well-worn and lived-in as someone twice his age.
As a guitarist, Molina demonstrated great intuition on the LP’s eight songs, his palm-muted chords and talkative leads always steady, never strident. He took a democratic approach to his new role as bandleader, freeing his collaborators to play to their strengths. On occasion, he even shared vocal duties — with country singer Lawrence Peters on “The Old Black Hen” (listen) and English indie siren Scout Niblett on “Peoria Lunchbox Blues” (listen).
The band reciprocated by illuminating Molina’s world-weary words with fiddle, mandolin, lap steel, bass, drums and Wurlitzer. Live, their playing was loose and expressive, effectively lifting the dark cloud that hovered over much of his solo material, giving “Magnolia” the aura of a gifted songwriter entering his prime.
Although the reissue unfortunately omits the record’s hard-to-find companion piece “Pyramid Electric Co.,” the bonus disc’s skeletal, newly-unearthed “Magnolia” home demos provide intrigue for seasoned listeners, and, coupled with the original album, an ideal starting point for latecomers.
Last month, music fans observed the tenth anniversary of the death of Elliott Smith — another talented, tortured artist gone too soon. Come 2023, they’ll do the same for Jason Molina.
But as he prophetically, poetically laid it down on “Farewell Transmission” (listen) — “Magnolia’s” first song, and its finest — “I will be gone… but not forever.”