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Songs:Ohia : Axxess & Ace

REVIEW: Songs:Ohia: Axxess & Ace
3.1.2002 by Sean

Songs:Ohia : Axxess & Ace [Secretly Canadian, 1999]

Two words? Folk soul.

I'll admit my bias at once: I love this album. Songs:Ohia's sophomore release pairs spontaneous, earnest passion with strummed folky tendencies in a way that Damien Jurado dreams of. With a lyrical intensity that recalls Mark Kozelek's acoustic reworkings of AC/DC tunes. Jason Molina's greatest strength is in his tendon-strong voice, able to capture sadness, anger and above all, yearning. While his other albums stumble in their attempts to express poetic complexities or epic imagery, Access & Ace is outstandingly simple: Molina sings, his heart full, and lets the round, sometimes siren-like sound of his vocals carry the weight and emotional strength of the stripped-down lyrics.

Songs:Ohia is merely a front for Molina, who brings in a ragtag crew of stellar back-up artists and then gives them little to do. This is not as a bad thing - what is to be showcased here is Molina's performance, and anything more than military drums and fat acoustic guitar strums would blot out the subtleties of his vocal delivery. Still, it's fascinating to me that the simple instrumentation can so wholly fill out the back of the songs, while so many other groups struggle (and fail) to create an immersive sound with bombastic, soaring orchestras. At times this disc is loud, but it never loses its rootedness in the melancholy sentiment. "Love Leaves Its Abuser" roars to climax, and then the listener is lead into the empty room of "Redhead". The album is a visceral emotional journey, lulling the depressed mind at the same time as it echoes the fist-clenched rage of an angry soul. Threaded through this is an intense kindness - a desire for generosity and love - that prevents the album from becoming bitter, and in fact makes it redemptive. Like a hot shower, Axxess & Ace scorches as it soothes, and it is not all the moping and screaming of older Hayden albums. Instead, Molina finds room for longing and sorrow in the day-to-day pop bounce of "Captain Badass" and the broken-down hoedown of "Come Back to Your Man".

The best soul artists totally reclaim the songs they sing, regardless of whether or not they wrote them. As Otis Redding, Al Green or Mary J. Blige sing (and it's especially evident if you're able to watch video recordings of their performances), the words are transformed through their ferocity of spirit - lyrics are made personal, and thus universal. On this album, Songs:Ohia takes the conventions and atmosphere of modern alt.folk, and then channels them into his own passionate call, response and questioning. Country echoes, folk contemplation and Bo Diddly remembrances weave around the vivacity of his songs, seal them, and send them out like burning arrows.

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