There's a certain kind of light
Jason Molina casts off the darkness with Magnolia Electric Company
For the better part of the 1990s, Jason Molina recorded many a fragile, lonesome lament under the moniker Songs: Ohia. His minimal accompaniment and sparse aesthetics weren't always a personal preference, however, and more a matter of necessity. Most of his projects balanced on a shoestring budget that forced him to roll tape anywhere but a proper recording studio.
"Stylistically, I don't think things have changed any," Molina says. "More recently, though, I've had access to a fantastic studio, a sympathetic engineer and a great team of people working on the records. The past output, on the other hand, has really just been feast or famine in taking what you can get. People have recorded [Songs: Ohia] records for free or on their off days. We recorded in people's basements and garages, whatever space was available."
After 10 years and nearly as many albums, Songs: Ohia gradually morphed into the multifaceted ensemble Magnolia Electric Company. The group features guitarist/vocalist Molina, bassist Pete Schreiner, singer/guitarist Jennie Benford, guitarist Jason Groth, drummer Mark Rice, violinist Dan Macadam and multi-instrumentalists Jim Grabowski and Michael Kapinus. That great expansion in membership allows for a vast sonic palette and gives the pensive Molina room to concentrate on what he does best: writing and singing tender songs often about heartache, regret and eventually having to count your losses and move on.
"The name change came upon the 10th anniversary of recording as Songs: Ohia," says Molina. "I figured I'd covered a lot of territory during those years, from the kind of sparse recordings in the kitchen and the basement to strange ensembles and instrumentation. It just felt like time to give it a different name because, as a band, we started pushing in a different direction that focused on getting as much out of the lyrics and arrangements of the songs as possible."
The 2003 album Magnolia Electric Co. was MEC's official jumping off point, though it was officially credited as a Songs: Ohia release. The live album, Trials and Errors, arrived earlier this year, shortly before MEC's first official full-length studio entry, What Comes After the Blues.
What Comes After is the sound of a reinvigorated Molina delivering some of the most direct songs of his career. It's a warm and textured album, and some might be surprised to learn that it was engineered by Steve Albini, a producer whose name is not exactly synonymous with virtues like warmth and compassion. Ringing pedal steel and fiddle accentuate songs like "The Dark Don't Hide It" and "Northstar Blues," prompting some to assume that Molina's now functioning in "country-rock" mode. He takes a bit of exception to that, insisting that it's still simply rock 'n' roll — just made the way few choose to do it anymore.
"I think all the 'classic rock' — Bob Seger, Neil Young, and whatever comparisons that we get — doesn't reflect so much the style but the sonic value of the music we're making," Molina points out. "We're recording in the same exact way that those guys did, and that really shows. We're recording all live, straight-to-tape, using 100 percent analog gear, so of course it sounds similar.
"But we don't consider ourselves any type of throwback band. We also get tagged a lot with being Southern rock or alt-country, and I just hate that. I think our music suffers if you need to cut corners and make it fall into a specific category. This is a serious band that's in it for the long haul. We certainly don't do it for the money but because we genuinely enjoy getting out there, setting up and playing in front of people."