REVIEW: Songs:Ohia: The Magnolia Electric Co
Songs:Ohia: The Magnolia Electric Co [Secretly Canadian, 2002] (mp3s)
Three words? Play it loud.
After I threw on The Magnolia Electric Co, I sat back, headphones-affixed, and waited to be lulled. This was Songs:Ohia, kings of indie post.folk, whose records number among the most moving and passionate I own: the whinsome heartbreak of Axxess & Ace; the jarring guitar squall of The Lioness; the spare, percussive melancholy of Ghost Tropic. From The Magnolia Electric Co I expected slow-burning ballads - quiet, intimate, acheing.
Instead, I was met with "Farewell Transmission," marked from the opening riffs as a strident Southern jam. This was not what I was waiting for. More than that, however, it was genuinely boring. As the song marched on, the guitars and lapsteel faded into mush; the drums kept time; the band's heart, Jason Molina, sang about "trying". Or something. "I've Been Riding With The Ghost" proved more alluring, but only moderately so. As The Magnolia Electric Co went on and on, I cared less and less. I looked for things to do. I searched for a single track that I liked enough to hear again. I flipped through the liner notes for Axxess & Ace. I didn't listen to it twice.
But listen now, friends: I had made a mistake. A big one. That week where Magnolia sat untouched on my desk was a wasted week, a sorry week, a week that could have been much, much more.
All it took, you see, was volume.
When I finally took The Magnolia Electric Co out again, slipped it into my walkman, and left for a walk, the volume had been left too high. "Farewell Transmission" blasted me with a jetstream of rock, marched over me with a swagger and a smile, helped me to my feet and shoved me on into the bayou. Suddenly, Steve Albini's production jumped to life in front of me, the simple guitar-lines grew solid and strong, and Molina was leading me into a cathartic, noisy hurrah.
Listened to properly, with the windows open and the stereo turned up loud, The Magnolia Electric Co is a midnight party in the swamp - a melodic bellow that gleams under moonlight. The chunky guitar riffs, made lonesome with twang, strut alongside Molina's croon. Five vocalists stand ready to back him up with muscular 'oohs', and Jennie Benford (Jim & Jennie & the Pinetops) is a particularly lovely accompaniment, like bluegrass on cornbread. "I've Been Riding With the Ghost" remains a rollicking stand-out, its searing jam tempered by mandolin and doo-wop flourishes. Throughout the record, Molina's lyrics remain poignant, nostalgic, but are determined to move forward: "In my life / I have had my doubts / but tonight I think I've worked it out / with all of them." These are songs to drive and stride and dance to, eyes-closed. It's rock'n'roll that runs on diesel and has a dog, whose soul looks to the blue sky and shouts.
It's sad, then, that the middle of The Magnolia Electric Co proves so maddeningly bad. On "The Old Black Hen" and "Peoria Lunch Box Blues", Molina takes a backseat - for the first time - to the vocal stylings of other Songs:Ohia players: Lawrence Peters and Scout Niblett, respectively. Peters, as the press release notes, deliver a "Merle Haggard-esque country croon", but while Secretly Canadian finds the effect "fantastic," I find it "heinous". Dan Macadam's world-weary violin solo proves the song's quality, but at every turn Peters makes things cheesy. This is Guy Smiley as balladeer, and he never stops lowing. "Peoria Lunch Box Blues" is not nearly so bad, but Niblett's trembling wail sounds like nothing so much as a poor-man's Cat Power. Whereas Chan Marshall invests everything with her thoughtful misery, Niblett merely whines. Throughout the song, she drowns the the electric melancholy of her accompaniment, unable to rise above the rest of the band's effortless intensity.
If it were not for the tragic twelve minutes that span "The Old Black Hen", "Peoria Lunch Box Blues", The Magnolia Electric Co would truly be an album to revel in. Far grander than "monster truck" country-rock, this is music where the twang and thrum of guitar fills and fulfills the confessions of the lyrics. Though not Jason Molina's most moving hour, it is vibrant, thriving, and - with the volume raised - daybreak, sundown and midnight triumph in a single compact disc.