Magnolia Electric Co./Jason Molina

Fading Trails/Let Me Go Let Me Go Let Me Go

(Secretly Canadian; 2006)

By Peter Hepburn | 26 January 2008

Somewhere late in the excellent Danielson: A Family Movie (or, Make a Joyful Noise HERE), Daniel Smith starts talking about the elements that differentiate Danielson Famile, Danielsonship, and just plain Danielson. To be perfectly honest, I don’t understand what the fuck he was talking about, but I think it had something to do with the algebra of who was available to play in the band. With Jason Molina, the system clearly has a different logic (assuming there’s a logic at all), and nowhere is that more clear than with the nearly-simultaneous release of both his third solo album and the second proper LP under the Magnolia Electric Co. moniker. Both are good discs, and together show two different and, at times, equally brilliant sides of Molina’s recording personality. Still, there’s no way this helps to explain why some things are Magnolia, some things are Molina, and some were Songs: Ohia.

Molina is best enjoyed with both a firm grasp of his back catalogue; even more so than Will Oldham, Dave Pajo, or Kurt Wagner, knowing where Molina is coming from helps to understand what he’s doing now. I don’t intend to rattle through his work with Songs: Ohia, but there’s an undeniable continuity -- a long and cohesive melodrama -- that informs his work and helps to place these two albums.

That place is not a good one, by all indications. Molina has never been the sunniest of folks, but these two albums are bleak even by his standard. Molina has talked a fair bit about battles with depression lately, and it comes through both in the lyrics and music. Heartbreak, departure, and loneliness have been dominating Molina’s songwriting since well back in the Songs: Ohia days, but never so clearly as on these two.

Let Me Go opens things off directly with the gorgeous piano dirge of “It’s Easier Now,” a title that clearly contradicts the spirit of the song. If anything, the whole album is set to prove that it rarely is easier -- no matter how much getting away you do, the pain of leaving lingers on. Molina has a gift at capturing both that melancholy and the things we do to patch it over, and this is one of his best expressions of it yet. What’s especially interesting about the song, and the album as a whole, is how much Molina manages to avoid many of his lyrical touchstones: ghosts, the moon, owls, and death have always been too big a part of his song-writing repertoire. But on this opening track he seems to be reworking them when he describes his eyes as “dead grey mule / torn apart moon / in an empty room / it’s easier now / that I just say / I got better.”

There are, of course, a few missteps. “Everything Should Try Again” feels a bit listless, and Molina’s delivery strikes me as a bit too Chris Isaak. “Alone With the Owl,” on the other hand, just seems short on ideas. More often, though, the sparse arrangements highlight a resurgent songwriting force. “Don’t it Look Like Rain” is one of Molina’s most powerful, depressing songs, and his delivery is flawless. Likewise, the show-stopping “Get Out, Get Out, Get Out,” which heralds in the near-perfect final third of the album, has Molina at his fiercest, letting loose with the brutal, “something must have told you / burn the bridges then the mast,” before going on to attack that lost love.

The final song -- the title track -- closes the album as a natural bridge to the Magnolia Electric Co. disc. Molina is on the electric guitar, riffing over a quiet drum machine and then trying to close out the pain that lead to the previous eight songs, avoiding forgiveness and taking escape instead. It’s a pretty song, and, clocking in at 6:39, the album’s longest (in fact, and somewhat remarkably given Molina’s track record, it’s the only song on either of these albums that exceeds five minutes). Molina is a whiz at the long-song, and while this one doesn’t quite measure up to some of his greats, it does show a common strand with some of his Pyramid Electric Co. work. Still, like most things on this album, it’s more accessible and direct than anything that record had to offer up.

So if Let Me Go shows the quiet, pained Molina at his strongest, Fading Trails attempts to show him back in the country-rock saddle. The good news is that, for the most part, it’s a solid, tempered return. The bad news is that, at a mere 28 minutes -- the shortest of any of the Molina albums that I’m aware of -- it does end up feeling a bit unsatisfactory and inconsistent. Of course, in retrospect, What Comes After the Blues was a hell of a grower, and there’s a good chance that this album might be likewise in time, but to a certain degree it just feels incomplete.

When the band is on, the songs are as good as anything off Let Me Go. “Don’t Fade on Me” is another perfect opener, starting out with Molina as the focal point and then letting the band kick in. As a statement of purpose, it’s both a response to the ideas in the solo record and a continuation of the previous Magnolia album. Lyrically, Molina’s on fire, letting loose with the blistering, “even Christ stayed until he had run out of town / but you faded on me.” It’s a shame then that he can’t follow it up, having both “Montgomery” and “Lonesome Valley” fall flat. It’s when he goes back to the solo mold with “A Little At a Time” that he manages to really strike again, marrying his quiet musings to the slow guitar doodles and atmospheric wash of the full band. Likewise, “The Old Horizon,” which wouldn’t have felt out of place on Let Me Go, shows him just barely using the band he’s brought together here. The album’s final four songs are its finest, from tender “Memphis Moon” to the sad sense of determination of “Steady Now.”

Ultimately, though, it’s a slight album. The full-band songs rarely manage the sort of charismatic country-rock crunchiness that made What Comes After the Blues so endearing on repeated listen. On the other hand, the solo tracks can’t really match up to the almost uniformly excellent offerings on Let Me Go. Mixing them together seems to muddle the idea of Magnolia Electric Co. as a group as well, especially as Molina seems more willing now to release records under his own name. Perhaps this hints at some further permutation of the group, but as a whole one can’t help but feel a bit disappointed in the album. Still, Molina’s got a lot going for him, and he does seem to be in the midst of something of a revival, and it’s reassuring to hear him back in the swing of things, if only briefly.