On March 16th, Jason Molina passed away from organ failure after a decade long struggle with alcoholism and severe depression. Though just 39, the songwriter amassed a sprawling, diverse discography, releasing dozens of albums, EPs, and singles ranging from mournfully downbeat lo-fi folk as Songs: Ohia, to distorted, downtrodden bar rock as Magnolia Electric Co., to sparse, often acoustic recordings issued under his own name. Until his alcoholism took control of his life around 2009, Molina was constantly moving from city to city, writing and performing. Some years he would notch upwards of 200 days on the road, all while taking inspiration from the heartland, the moon, and his own heartbreak. After his passing, his longtime label Secretly Canadian reissued the first Songs: Ohia EP, Hecla & Griper, and now they’ve reissued a 10th Anniversary deluxe edition of his Songs: Ohia swan song, The Magnolia Electric Co.
In 2003, Songs: Ohia ended its run by releasing Magnolia Electric Co., which marked a musical shift from Molina’s six previously reedy and achingly intense albums under that moniker. Employing a full band instead of a revolving cast of collaborators, the album took its cues from ‘70s roots rock and country, with extra potency provided by legendary producer Steve Albini’s muscular engineering. Recording the tracks live in studio, Molina’s songs were given a freewheeling, collaborative shape — the lap steels, electric guitars, and fiddles allowed the material to have a sense of urgency, as well as a newfound freedom to explore space and textures. Though it’s billed as a Songs: Ohia record, Molina considered it the first Magnolia Electric Co. album, with 2002’s Didn’t It Rain being the last Songs: Ohia offering.
The magnificent “Farewell Transmission” opens Magnolia Electric Co., a southern jam that clocks in over seven minutes without ever meandering. Lyrically, it’s Molina at his best, introspective clarity complemented by churning, powerful riffs. “The real truth about it is no one gets it right,” he sings. “The real truth about it is we’re all supposed to try.” With these few words, Molina simply offered revelations into daily life with unflinching candor that wiped away any pretense. Following “Transmission” is the engaging, lap steel-heavy “I’ve Been Riding With The Ghost”, which perfectly segues into “Just Be Simple”, a delicate track on which Molina’s raw emotions are laid bare. The uniformly high quality of the songs in the first half of Magnolia Electric Co. makes for one of the more memorable A-sides in the genre.
Later on the LP, Molina relinquishes his vocal duties on two songs, the Merle Haggard-esque “The Old Black Hen” and the sauntering “Peoria Lunch Box Blues”, giving the lead vocals to Lawrence Peters and Scout Niblett, respectively. Niblett’s vocal dexterity fits the latter track more than Peters’s due to his over-the-top country croon. Despite this, both tracks match the album’s strengths, thanks to the wailing fiddle solo on the former and Niblett’s fragile warble on the latter. “Hold On, Magnolia” stunningly closes the album, gently plaintive with string arrangements, piano, and more lap steel. The pain in Molina’s voice when he sings the line “In my life I have had my doubts/ But tonight I think I’ve worked it out with all of them” is almost tangible, but its flicker of hopefulness makes for a sublime conclusion.
The second disc consists only of demos and was originally released in its first pressing, and also accomplishes the rare feat of being a worthwhile offering on its own. Stripping the Magnolia Electric Co. songs of the driving electric guitars and alt-country swagger leaves Molina alone with his guitar. Acoustic versions of songs like “Farewell Transmission” and “Hold On, Magnolia” take on the haunting, barren quality of early Songs: Ohia. Also, Molina resumes his vocal duties on the demos of “The Old Black Hen” and “Peoria Lunch Box Blues”, brushing away any reservations from the guest vocalists’ performances on the LP. These simple, unfinished products are beautiful and carry their own weight, even compared to the rest of Molina’s impressive discography. With or without the classic rock compositions and the full band, these demos prove that the songs are at their core deeply affecting, heartbreaking, and incredible.
Secretly Canadian also attached a 10-inch disc of bonus tracks to the 10th Anniversary reissue. First is “The Big Game Is Every Night”, a powerful, ominous epic almost reaching ten minutes in length. Originally appearing on the Japanese release of Magnolia Electric Co., “The Big Game Is Every Night” reaches astonishingly dark territory, with Molina singing, “If I’m all fangs, and all lies, and all poison/ If I’m really what they’re saying/ I don’t want to disappoint them.” Also featured is the lovely original version of “Whip Poor Will”, a song that would be reworked and released in Magnolia Electric Co.’s final album, Josephine.
After the release of Magnolia Electric Co., Songs: Ohia adopted the name of the album and toured under its new identity, releasing a string of varied, but still strong albums embracing the spirit of the namesake record. It’s easy to overrate an artist’s work after their death, but given Magnolia Electric Co.’s quality, it’s hard to do here. The lyrics do take on even more haunting shades of emotional resonance considering Molina’s tragic death, but the music has always been there, and has aged incredibly well. Arguably Molina’s best record, it’s also his most accessible — a perfect gateway for someone looking to dive into his staggering oeuvre. Though Molina never shook the demons he sang about, his music undoubtedly helped many shake theirs.
Essential Tracks: “Farewell Transmission”, “Hold On, Magnolia”, and “The Big Game Is Every Night”