(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Recording review - Songs:Ohia, Journey On: Collected Singles (2014)

Don't look for explanations, just feel the connection

Jason Molina was more comfortable faintly disguising his solo work with band names like Songs: Ohia and later Magnolia Electric Co. Whether that helped or hindered, he still managed to inspire a mythology as a tortured artist, an iconoclast and an idiosyncratic genius. Molina himself seemed to have little interest in that kind of analysis; he’d rather buckle down and move on to the next project. Journey On: Collected Singles gathers a number of his early 7″ singles and split sides in lovingly retrospective homage. Ben Swanson of Secretly Canadian talks about how hard it was to get Molina to agree to the idea. He jokes that Molina started to entertain the idea because he was sick of them asking, but of course it may be that he was physically just too sick to argue any more. His untimely death in March 2013 at 39 closed out a long struggle with alcoholism and left fans feeling the loss. This special box set honors the 7” release format he favored. Coming out about for 2014′s Record Store Day some 13 months after he died, it forces a kind of maudlin nostalgia that Molina probably would have resisted.

Fans will pore over these songs and others looking for clues and explanations but that path is ultimately unsatisfying. Sure, certain lyrical moments can suggest foreshadowing and there is a morose undertone to much of his work, but looking for confirmation is a sucker’s game. Magical thinking and false pattern matches won’t explain anything, much less resurrect him and it’s merely our yearning for a simple narrative that beckons us into that trap. While this collection does show off his emotional depth and beautiful economy, in the cold light of day, his moody themes are no different than a host of other ‘tortured’ artists. It would better serve his memory to just embrace the loss, savor the music and try to carry on. At least that would be in keeping with the perspective he favored in his songs, where he might be beaten, but he was rarely self-pitying.

Drawing on almost a decade’s worth of odd songs, Journey On shows a wide range of sounds from the raw alt-folk wail of “Boys” to the ponderous elegance of “Keep It Steady”. Much of the material shows Molina’s appreciation for Neil Young, both in his embrace of sonic simplicity and his sincere and unselfconscious singing, but other influences come through. The moody drive and syncopated percussion of “Freedom Pt. 2″ evoke Black Sabbath’s psychedelic tunes like “Planet Caravan”, while “Soul” draws on the reflective tone of “Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones. As he sings, “What is it like?/ Is it worth this misfortune ?/ What is it like on the other side?” he sounds wearier than Mick Jagger. Listeners who insist on overanalyzing these songs for signs of Molina’s fall will appreciate the irony of lyrics that find solace in passion, mercy and patience, when mercy and patience were not enough to overcome his passions or addictions. It’s an overly facile reading, though, and it’s better to just sink into the embrace of his voice which shifts from vulnerable to raggedly insistent.

Of all the tracks on Journey On, “Lioness” is my favorite. The original version from 2000′s The Lioness is powered by the transition from drag-beat verses to the up tempo assertive chorus. But this stripped-down take hits like a sucker punch. The shadowy solitude of the simple guitar creates a small hollow of space to hold Molina’s fatalistic surrender to love, regardless of the cost. Jennie Benford’s drone backing harmony steps in behind his voice to brace his resolve. Instead of relying on the pacing to build the chorus intensity, he packs the repetition of, “If you can’t get here fast enough / You can’t get here fast enough…” with desperation, like the sound of a man at the end of his rope. His voice swings from resignation touched by beatific martyrdom to taut focus. Although this is clearly a song about self-destructive obsession, it still doesn’t play to the narrative of a doomed alcoholic. Instead, the powerful beauty of this song centers on the conscious choice to trade everything for love, “l want to feel my heart break, if it must break, in your jaws.” The tiny spike of guitar punch at the end is less a feint towards a lead than the sound of the last wall falling between him and his fate.

Journey On serves as a wonderfully cathartic wake for a strong but somehow brittle artist. It lets us mourn his loss and immerse ourselves in all of the emotions he evokes: the solemn pain of “United or Lost Alone”, the resolute strength of “Vanquisher”, the taunting exaltation of “Boys”. It’s a small shrine, but as he sings on “The Gray Tower”, “I think there’s a lot of good in this town/ I think a lot of it’s unredeemed.” This collection redeems a bit of Molina’s spirit for all of us.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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