Early last summer, a few weeks before Songs: Ohia was to record its latest album at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio, leader Jason Molina shoved a stick into the spokes. He decided to trash the songs the group had planned to record and wrote ten brand-new ones, which he dumped onto a CD-R and passed out to his bandmates.
The band's personnel has shifted constantly over the years, but the hallmark of the lineup at the time was a storming intensity reminiscent of Neil Young's Crazy Horse. The new songs, though, weren't cyclical Crazy Horse stompers--they had more parts and more intricate melodies. According to Molina, "I asked [the band], 'What if we took songs that had a lot more subtlety to them and still tried to put in all of the force of our loud, distorted live show and channel it into something tighter?' I got a lot of really puzzled looks."
"Knowing Jason, I think we did come to expect [something like] that," says Dan MacAdam, who played guitar and violin on the album. "He's more interested in capturing that moment of discovery where people don't have the time to overthink or be very deliberate about what they play. I think by giving us...such a short time to work with [the material] he managed to maintain an interesting sort of control over what was going on while letting people do pretty much whatever the heck came to them."
The full band never even got a chance to rehearse the new material before the session, and Molina shook things up further by inviting six additional musicians--most of whom the rest hadn't worked with before--to join the fray. They discussed the arrangements in the studio, ran through each song once or twice, and then recorded nearly everything live, including some impressive harmony vocals.
The gamble paid off: The new album, The Magnolia Electric Co., is easily the best of Molina's career, mixing remnants of the live band's brooding roots rock with pure honky-tonk balladry and pop hooks you'd almost call uplifting. Gorgeous ragged harmonies, clarion lap steel courtesy of Philadelphian Mike Brenner, and MacAdam's wailing violin give the recording a lushness and depth beyond anything Songs: Ohia's ever done.
But it's not a Songs: Ohia album, says Molina. Although Secretly Canadian, the record label in Bloomington, Indiana, that's released most of Molina's work, refers to the album on its Web site and in press materials as the seventh Songs: Ohia album, and although Schubas has been billing this Sunday night's gig as Songs: Ohia, Molina insists that's not right, saying, "There's no more Songs: Ohia."
He's not exactly breaking up a band--while his wobbly intonation and bleak, rootsy writing have remained constant through the years, almost nothing else has. Over the course of seven albums and hundreds of live shows, he's played with about 40 or 50 people, embracing the quirks each has brought to the table. In the future, he says, each of his albums will bear a variation of the Electric Co. name, hinting at a looser sort of continuum. His next offering, a solo recording, will be a vinyl-only release this fall under the name Pyramid Electric Co. "I'm changing the band name in a way that you sort of know who's involved, but it's a document of those players and that group of songs in that studio," he says.
Molina, 29, says that's how he always envisioned Songs: Ohia operating. "I don't like the way bands work," he says. "If you're the main songwriting force in a group it becomes too much of a burden to always be doing all the work and not be getting a lot of input. I didn't want to make music where people expected it to always sound the same, so by always rotating the lineup around me it challenges me to be better because I'm playing with someone new every month. And it gives them a lot of freedom because they don't have the baggage of what it's like to play music with Jason Molina."
This approach is reminiscent of Will Oldham, who released the first Songs: Ohia single on his label in 1996. Ever since then, Molina has been dogged by comparisons to Oldham--both look to American rural music for inspiration, and both sing with unsteady pitch. "I think what was great about [that comparison] was that it set me up for a hard time from the very beginning," Molina says. "I could either surrender to it or just do what I was naturally going to do anyway." Last year he even made a record with Oldham, along with Alasdair Roberts of Appendix Out--another singer often compared to Oldham--under the name the Amalgamated Sons of Rest.
Many of the musicians who've played with Molina over the past eight or nine years have been from Chicago, and he himself relocated here from Bloomington in 1998. (He moved back last summer.) Several of his classmates and frequent collaborators from his days at Oberlin College in the early 90s had come to Chicago, and Molina thought it made sense to go where he already knew people he could work with. He'd played with MacAdam, brothers Rob and Dan Sullivan (on bass and guitar, respectively), and drummer Jeff Panall at Oberlin, and during his stay in Chicago they became his de facto touring band, though The Magnolia Electric Co. is the first studio record they've made with him. Over the years Molina's also collaborated with locals Michael Krassner, Edith Frost, Julie Liu, and Dave Pavkovic.
Jennie Benford of Jim & Jennie and the Pinetops contributes harmony vocals and mandolin, and Molina actually turns the lead vocals over to other singers on a couple songs: Lawrence Peters of the Wichita Shut-Ins brings some old-school honky-tonk pathos to "The Old Black Hen," and British singer Scout Niblett turns "Peoria Lunch Box Blues" into a fragile heartbreaker. "My personality is all in the songs," Molina says. "I'm putting as much as I humanly can into the records. Anything I can do to make my records not about Jason Molina I'm happy to do."
On Sunday at Schubas, Molina will be accompanied by a new band of Bloomington-based musicians.
A feature in the April issue of Chicago magazine, on the stands now, proclaims the most overrated and underrated things about Chicago. The pop music item, by Trib critic Greg Kot, seems like it was written about six years ago and held until now: Liz Phair, who moved to Los Angeles in 2001, is his pick for most overrated rock act, while Eleventh Dream Day is most underrated. While I can't argue with the latter choice--in my book EDD is Chicago's all-time greatest rock band--I was puzzled to read that the band isn't very active today because of its members' other musical endeavors, including "singer-guitarist Rick Rizzo recording with Red Red Meat"--something he last did on the band's 1997 swan song, There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight (Sub Pop).
Alto saxophonist Aram Shelton's new octet performs at the Chicago Cultural Center this Sunday, March 23, at 2 PM. On a two-track demo CD recorded last fall, Shelton's arrangements are meticulously charted, and the band's simple daubs of sound, when heard cumulatively, create a shape-shifting movement, like drifting clouds. This fine group includes Shelton, Guillermo Gregorio, and Keefe Jackson on reeds, Josh Berman on cornet, Fred Lonberg-Holm and Kevin Davis on cello, and Jason Roebke and Brian Dibblee on basses.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve Gulick.