Songs: Ohia

Magnolia Electric Co.

(Secretly Canadian; 2003)

By Amir Nezar | 31 December 2007

OK. So I have a confession to make. I fucking hate country music. With a burning, unbridled passion that is rivaled only by my disgust for emo. It's something about country tunes' insistent catchiness that's infuriating, precisely because the catchiness comes from a tune that's usually unmitigated, unjustifiable shit in construction and depth. The lyrics are ALL THE SAME. If it's a chick-country group, expect beratings of their unfaithful man, or reaffirmation's of undying love, or moping on how they lost someone, managing to incorporate the greatest number of clichés possible in sentiments that are sung so earnestly that you've just got to believe that this story is worth listening to. Almost the same for country guys. 'Cept they sing about cowboys and dumb nostalgic shit, gamblers in saloons, lost days of youth, and of course women, trucks, and dogs. Usually lost in that order.

Well, since we humans work by association, everything that's then attached to country music reeks of it. Just like you wouldn't want to eat a meal that looks good but has a slight stank of crap to it, so I'm wary of music that incorporates country in it at all. Alt-country is as far as I go, and we're talking Wilco here, who are less alt-country than alt-pop-folk. Ok, so that's not a genre, but I don't care. Slide guitars and steel pedals, when I hear them, are things that connote terrible things to me, so when I hear them coming I cover my balls and duck, because I'm sure that infuriating kick is going to come soon.

"Would he shut the fuck up? He's reviewing Songs: Ohia, not Shania Twain."

True. But the alt-country twang in "Magnolia Electric Co." was slightly terrifying at first. The intro to "Be Simple," replete with slide guitars and steel pedals, is evidence enough. The tune is mildly frightening because it is heavily country influenced. The guitars stay, but it maintains enough space and depth within the tune to make it not only bearable, but enjoyable.

So by the time I was three songs into "Magnolia Electric Co." I was breathing easier, and was thinking, you know, I really like this album! The fantastic minor melody in "I've Been Riding WIth The Ghost," was blanketed by the wonderful resigned vocals of Jason Molina singing "While you've been busy crying about my past mistakes / I've been busy trying to make a change / And now I've made a change." Then the song kicks into a more energetic, fleshed out push with insistent drums and ghostly (how appropriate!) siren voices lilting over the murky soundscape. Then the great lyric "See I ain't gettin' better / I'm only getting behind." Molina's conflicted, morose lyrics snagged me and I was imagining great navy blue nights with butterscotch lamps flickering down an endless road, my sadness about anything seeping out of me, cleansing me as it washed out. "Be Simple," only furthered that sense, despite my initial foreboding. And then. Well. Nothing had prepared me for the utter beauty of "Almost Was Good Enough." Every word was genius, the minor keys were absolutely heart breaking, and that electric guitar could barely keep itself together, as though the angelic "oooooh's" that floated in the mix of bass and organ and reverbing guitar and drums were all that could keep things from unraveling into tragic wreckage. And seriously, I've got to show you some of these lyrics.

"I've been trying anyhow / And I'm still trying now / To keep moving."

"I remember when / It didn't used to be so hard / It used to be impossible."

"A new season has to begin / I can feel it leaning in / Whispering / Nothing's lonely now / Nothing any more in vain..."

"Now the secrets always dress / They want everyone to know that they're around / Leaning in / Whispering / My friend over there don't know what he's talking about..."

And then, by God, when Molina barely can force it out of himself after singing "almost no one makes it out" over and over again, he does little more than breathe the words, "And for once / Almost was good enough." It was single-handedly the most heart-wrecking song I'd heard in ages. And then...

"FUCK. What is this SHIT?"

It was not Molina's voice. Was it? Couldn't be. Nope. It's Lawrence Peters, on "The Old Black Hen." The song is, relative to nearly every other song on this album, an unqualified disaster. Peters croons meaninglessly about a "bad-luck lullaby" and he's got a THICK southern twang, and there's a fucking FIDDLE? The fiddle (different from the violin) is the instrument of the devil used to rock-a-by unwitting Americans into the deepest recesses of musical crap. Note that Dave Matthews also uses it. But the less we speak of DMB, the better.

I felt hurt. Betrayed. Here, Molina had constructed what heretofore been a lovely album, with memorable songs, and the perfect ambivalence of resignation and a hobbled desire to move on, and he somehow conceives of this unforgivable idea to use this country schmuck in his grand, lovely scheme. It's like the pothole that comes out of nowhere and obliterates the axle of your car.

I moved on. And thank God - the next appearance is a beautiful one by Scout Niblett, whose raw, vulnerable voice accompanies a relatively unimpressive, piano-inflected tune, but at least it eased me out of the unexpected kick-in-the-nuts that left me gasping for justification of "Old Black Hen." Then Molina picks back up and finishes out his album on the nice two closers "John Henry Split My Heart," which isn't particularly brilliant, but still fairly excellent, and the wonderful "Hold On Magnolia."

I would come to listen to this album over and over again afterwards, but would have my hand readied on the skip button as soon as "Almost Was Good Enough" was over. And that's a tragedy, on an 8-song album. That it goes from its peak to the most glaring error imaginable just stung. It made the other small errors on the record (the occasionally tame or too-slow melody supporting Molina's unfailingly excellent lyrics) stand out more, and, kids, to be honest, it dropped my rating of it a good 8 percentage points. I do still suggest you pick this album up. Where it doesn't fail, it's glorious. But it does fail (hugely) at one point, and slightly in others, and the heartbreaking feeling is that an album that could've made my top 10 is now struggling to get into my top 20. Almost was good enough, but just barely.