Jason Molina has lived in so many cities, toured with so many backing musicians, and put out so many albums that it's hard to get your head around him. So here are two places to start.
The first is Trials & Errors, the live album from his band Magnolia Electric Co., which shows off the influence of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. It's not just the tough peals of the guitars that evokes Young, not just Molina's flat northern twang: Molina even throws some of Young's lines into the concert versions of his own songs.
Then there's the story that fellow alt-country singer Will Oldham tells about discovering Molina. While Oldham was touring Ohio, someone handed him a cassette Molina recorded in his bathroom. After each of the tape's very slow songs, Molina whispered, "You can write me letters." Some of Molina's music is still like that: claustrophobic indie-folk-rock that yearns for intimacy.
Originally from the Cleveland area (he's lived in nine towns, including Bloomington, Indiana, and Chicago), Molina put out several albums and EPs under the name Songs: Ohia between 1997 and 2003. Then he retired his four-string tenor guitar for a six-string, recruited a new backup group, and renamed the band Magnolia Electric Co. Trials & Errors caught the transition with a set of Songs: Ohia highlights mixed with new rockers.
The first track, "Dark Don't Hide It," shows how exciting, ambitious, and elusive Molina's songwriting can be. It starts as a simple song of betrayal, sung to an ex-lover or ex-friend who's "been using me," and then becomes a misanthropic outburst about the
world, heaven, and human hearts that sounds like self-justification from Satan himself: "I had a job to do but people like you/Been doing it for me to one another/At least I don't hide it."
Magnolia Electric Co. plays the Blind Pig on Monday, September 11, and the band's second solo album, Fading Trails, debuts in stores the next day. Compiled from several recording sessions — one at Sun Studios, others produced by famed alt-rock studio man Steve Albini and by David Lowery of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker — this album shows Molina's skill at quiet, introspective songwriting. Yet there's enough variety to make it accessible: up-tempo numbers, laid-back blues, haunted yet assured ballads sometimes reminiscent of Chris Isaak ("Talk to Me, Devil, Again").
Though prolific, Molina returns obsessively to certain themes and symbols: legendary cities, snakes, the devil, the blues, the dark, the moon, the North Star. On Trials & Errors he sings, "I heard the North Star saying, 'Kid, you're so lost even I can't bring you home.'"
A wanderer in life, restless in song, Molina may leave listeners wondering whether he's following any reliable path. That's why his music can be challenging, and why it's so rewarding when, for one song or one moment, he finds his guiding star.
[Review published September 2006]