Magnolia Electric Co.

Josephine

(Secretly Canadian; 2009)

By Peter Hepburn & Scott Reid | 31 July 2009

Since 1996, Jason Molina has released hours upon hours of songs dealing with the same basic themes (heartbreak, dislocation, being a wanderer, the allure of the unknown) and signposts (moons, feathers, sunsets, valleys, crossroads, horizons, ghosts of all sorts). To dismiss this as complacent or lazy songwriting would be shallow, but seriously: if one wanted to parody Molina (lord knows why), it wouldn’t exactly be hard. Yet, despite the familiarity bred from this well-defined and well-milked aesthetic, his records surprisingly don’t cohere very well. He’s yet to release an outright trainwreck of an LP, but even his best occasionally stumble with bad sequencing or a bum track—some (“The Old Black Hen”) more egregiously than others (“Everything Should Try Again”).

All of these things are true of Molina’s latest with Magnolia Electric Co., Josephine, a tribute of sorts to ex-bandmate Evan Farrell, who, in December of 2007, died in a tragic apartment fire. (Says Molina: “Each tune is a good faith attempt to make real Evan’s hopes for the record. And in doing so, Evan’s spirit becomes part of the concept.”) This is a beautiful and stark and deeply moving record, rife with all the wearily sung signifiers we have come to love and expect—just now with a pointed focus on, as he sings in centerpiece “The Handing Down,” “tears and twilight from a friend’s dying day.” There’s a sense throughout that they’ve used this material—some written over a half-decade ago—to heal as much as mourn, briefly allowing cracks of light to bleed into what is often a very heavy record. Not a single one of these fourteen tracks will truly surprise even casual fans, but the band does manage to revitalize their unwavering MO with Josephine; the songs are no less samey, just stronger and better produced, made all the more poignant by their unifying concept. And while it may not quite reach the heights of 2003’s Magnolia Electric Co.—which is to say there’s no “Farewell Transmission” here—it’s easily their best since.

Primarily, it benefits from a sort of retrenchment. As a songwriter, Molina has always drawn from the history and language of blues and folk music. One of his most telling lines, from Magnolia Electric Co., is “I was trying to sing the Blues / the way I find them.” That’s read as a statement on not only being true to one’s own experience, but also true to what came before. And while we focus above on the familiarity of Molina’s music, he has covered stylistic ground over the last thirteen years (albeit within that resolute framework), especially in the Songs: Ohia days when he would switch lineups between every album a la Neil Young. The early MEC stuff developed more of a loose Crazy Horse feel, and the Sojourner box (2007) showed how much give there still was in the formula. (Specifically, four discs worth. Phew.) Josephine, by comparison, gives notice of the real embrace of that great American sound: this is a Country album, and unabashedly so. The songs are tight, there’s plenty of laid-back shuffle and twang, and all those often soul-crushing allusions—now even moreso within this new context—fit in perfectly.

More importantly, Josephine sounds fantastic. Steve Albini’s skill is legendary, of course, and though he’s been working with Molina for years now, this may be the best sounding of their records: the arrangements cradle Molina without crowding him, the vocals are crystalline, and Albini seems as tuned in to Michael Kapinus’s keyboard work as he ever has been to Jason Groth’s guitar heroics. The band also finally feels like a real unit. Groth and Molina often overwhelmed their previous albums together, but there’s a greater balance here, a tendency to focus on the fine detail that complements the strengths of the other members. Drummer Mark Rice has some great leading moments as well, and bassist Peter Schreiner fills the late Evan Farrell’s shoes capably.

Opener “O! Grace” is one of Josephine‘s best, with Molina immediately setting the grim tone: “If you stop believing / That don’t mean that it just goes away / It’s a long way between horizons / And it gets farther every day.” It begins with Kapinus’s descending piano line before things trickle leisurely into place: Rice’s brushed snare catches the ear, the whole band chimes in on the chorus, and a random saxophone solo (!) rounds it out. “Whip-poor-will”—an old song from the Magnolia Electric Co. era—finally gets the treatment it always deserved, with Molina’s strummed folk backed with slide guitar and striking harmonies. The mid-section is held together by “The Handing Down” and “Map of the Falling Sky,” which make for a dark, bereft, but awfully pretty core. Another old song, “Shiloh,” is smartly resurrected in the back half; reflecting this record’s shift in musical focus toward country, it’s telling that the backbone piano is now more memorable than the guitar work. Closer “An Arrow in the Gale” is the shortest track, but coming after “Shiloh” it feels like the perfect light, catchy way to close out this album.

As should be expected, there are a few lows. “Hope Dies Last” and “Knoxville Girl” drag, mostly victims of their sequencing; “Little Sad Eyes” has too much Hammond B3 and too little idea of where it wants to go; and while there are a few great slow songs—like “Shenandoah” with its tear-jerking lap steel, and “Song for Willie” with that clever little guitar lick and cornet—it can be a bit much toward the end of the album. But these are minor flaws, pleasant ones, none of which threaten to derail the record as a whole. Who knows if Josephine will ultimately have the staying power of Molina’s very best work, but he and his band are back doing what they do best—and, for all the talk of ramblers heading for the horizon, they finally sound at home.

:: myspace.com/magnoliaelectricco