August 24th, 2005

Magnolia Electric Co.

Had a piece in last week’s Journal News about the Jason Molina’s current band, Magnolia Electric Co. Looks to me like they ran short on space and ended up cutting the piece down pretty significantly, which is fine. But I like what I wrote a bit better than what ran (though what I wrote certainly needed an edit), so I’m gonna post my original story here. If you’d rather read the shorter, edited version that showed up in print, you can do so here. Otherwise, I hope you dig this.

Jason Molina doesn’t insist on a vinyl pressing of every record he makes because he wants to offer something to collectors. He doesn’t do it for the sake of vanity, either. He doesn’t really even do it because he’s one of those people who thinks music sounds better coming off a turntable.

Molina, the Chicago-based singer-songwriter who’s calling his current band Magnolia Electric Co. (after the title of the final album recorded under his previous project name, Songs: Ohia) insists on vinyl because, unlike CDs, records are expensive to manufacture. And when Molina takes a band into the studio, he believes he owes it to himself, his fans and his label, Secretly Canadian, to produce a work that’s worth the expense of pressing on vinyl.

“There’s a finite number of people who we can expect to buy [a record] on vinyl, because people don’t buy it as a novelty, they’re buying it because it’s the way that they prefer to listen to music,” Molina says. “So we always said that if you don’t think that this record is worth putting out on vinyl, then it’s not worth putting out. And I’ve always really stuck to that. I’ve never put out an LP that I wasn’t happy with.”

That’s fairly astounding given the volume of music Molina has produced as the leader of various projects over a recording career currently in its tenth year. With Songs: Ohia, a “band” that amounted to Molina and whomever else a particular group of songs suited, Molina made seven full-length records and an assortment of EPs and singles between 1996 and 2003. After wrapping up Songs: Ohia with Magnolia Electric Co., Molina last year stepped aside and offered the solo disc Pyramid Electric Co. under his own name. And this year, working for the first time with a stable-membership backing band, he’s been behind two full-length CDs already — the live Trials and Errors and the studio effort What Comes After the Blues — and has a five-song EP, Hard to Love a Man slated for release in October.

The fact of the matter, however, is that both fans and critics, by and large, have echoed Molina’s satisfaction with his recorded output. Songs: Ohia’s records, which typically rang with the stillness of spaces too big even for the sorrows and passions spilling out of Molina’s mouth and guitar, were embraced for Molina’s uncanny ability to evoke distance and intimacy at once. Pyramid Electric captured the ear and the mind by presenting songs more aching, more raw, darker, and a Molina more pitiless in self-examination than anything Songs: Ohia had produced. And then Magnolia Electric came forward and put the muscle of a real band, a country-rock band with the hard, dangerous edge of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse, behind Molina’s still mostly sorrowful lyricism and expert guitar playing, giving the songwriter the ability to rock out like he means it — or not to rock out in a manner that leaves little doubt but that he means not to.

What all of Molina’s work shares is an unrelenting sense of immediacy. And that derives nearly as much from the way in which Molina has chosen to create his records as it does from his considerable skill as a songwriter. While every record Molina makes is carefully thought-out — the songs written with care, the players selected with an eye to commitment and work ethic as much as for talent — Molina prefers not to belabor production of his releases.

Molina has chosen, from the very start, to record his music live in the studio. He doesn’t even use scratch vocals (vocals recorded in live performance that are later overdubbed) as many “live in studio” bands do. He wants the authenticity of a band playing all at once, even if it makes the recording process more difficult. He says he understands, though, why his technique is uncommon.

“We like the character of the performances,” Molina says. “We don’t want there to be obvious mistakes, but this is the kind of presenting of songs that tries to keep all the human elements in there. And so, you know, in the middle of the song, I’ll play the chord, but because I’m playing guitar and singing live, I might not hit the chord hard enough for it to ring out all the way and you just get two notes instead of five. And I don’t worry to go back and fix that, because I think overall people are listening to it as a whole unit, and if anything that stands out to someone.”

If everything goes right, Molina says, he believes he and his band can get an album tracked, start to finish, in four hours of recording time. That’s helpful, he notes, when you like to put out a lot of records and you tend to spend eight months a year on tour.

Indeed, Molina notes that during a recent short break in touring, Magnolia Electric spent a few days at producer Steve Albini’s studio, Electrical Audio, putting down tracks for the band’s next full-length CD. Molina expects to release the disc early next year.

“They’re finished,” Molina says of the new songs. “We did at least 13 songs, I think, by my count. I’m hoping that we can get at least 11 or so of them on the record. It just comes down to however much we can fit safely on the LP.”

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