Magnolia Electric Co.
Baton Rouge, LA
Apologies for the long post.
The terrible news yesterday was of Jason Molina’s passing. Jason was the force behind the Songs: Ohia moniker (largely for his own solo work) and Magnolia Electric Co (which saw him working with a regular band). He collaborated with a wide variety of artists from indie, country, and bluegrass backgrounds, including Arab Strap, Jim Krewson and Jennie Bedford (of Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops), Lawrence Peters, Scout Niblett, and Sarah Jaffe. He also released solo work under his own name and under the name Pyramid Electric Co.
The first public sign that things were wrong came in 2009, when the tour to support Jason’s album with Will Johnson was cancelled due to Jason’s health problems. These problems were not explained at the time, and Jason seemed to have fallen off the face of the planet. Then in May 2010, an interview emerged suggesting that he simply decided to move because of a new job his wife took in London.
But notes on Magnolia Electric Co.’s website seemed to tell a different story: he was sick, he moved to West Virginia and was working on a farm. A Kickstarter project was started to help him pay his medical bills…and now, finally, suddenly, the news that he had died, at age 39, of natural causes…but natural causes related to “severe alcoholism.” I wasn’t aware until now of this prophetic piece in Chunklet.
I first heard Jason when I was living in Athens, Greece, of all places, in 2003. I went to the biggest music store in the city, Metropolis (now vanished). Up on the third floor, some hipper-than-thou employees had put on The Lioness. I thought maybe it was Will Oldham, but they were all too happy to correct me. I bought the album, and that was it – I had discovered my new favorite artist.
I saw Jason perform three times, in 2004 (Charlottesville), 2006 (Baton Rouge), and 2007 (New Orleans). I spoke with him on two of those occasions. We only said hi the second time, but when I talked to him in Baton Rouge, we had a great conversation, talking about the fact that I’m an archaeologist, and that he was always finding Indian artifacts on his family property in Indiana. I suggested that he contact the local historical society or university and let them do a dig. He seemed interested in the prospect. We also talked about the baffling phenomenon of low attendance at the band’s shows in the South, and how hard it was for them to justify coming to Louisiana, even though they loved it (Florida had long been ignored for this very reason).
I made two recordings of Magnolia Electric Co.’s shows, both from the soundboard. I already posted a song from one of them, a cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” that now seems eerily prescient. He made a habit of not playing old songs live. I had long considered posting the show you find here, even though the quality isn’t that great – the levels are too high and overloaded, especially when the keyboard is going. But whatever – the man deserves a tribute, this is what I’ve got, so here it is. This recording includes a brief mention of the origin of the song “Spanish Moon Rise and Fall” from the box set.
I’m just going to leave a section from the interview linked above to close:
JM: I think covers are important; I’ve seen it in its maximum power during the Johnny Cash American Recording sessions. You might notice that my songs did not get covered by Cash, or maybe one did but it’s not been released.
JT: Do you know which song he was thinking of, or if there was one in particular?
JM: Yeah, but I think that Willie [Nelson] took it. Then I did that “Song for Willie”… One of my band mates, Daniel McAdams, did the cover art for the new Willie Nelson record. He’s a brilliant silkscreen artist, he did the first Songs:Ohia record, he played bass with me for years, we shared a place together, so I said, “well, look I did this ‘Song for Willie,’ can you give him this fucking record?” and he did, so at least Willie has that in his hands. “Song for Willie” is, I think, the best song I ever wrote. Ever. And whether or not he ever hears it, it doesn’t matter.
JT: I’ll have to go back and listen to that song again. I was listening to it this morning. I mean I like that song a lot, but—well, I don’t want to sit here and have a fight with you about which of your own songs is the best, but I guess if I was putting a list together, “Farewell Transmission” would be a really strong contender for me. Also “It’s Made Me Cry”, with that one riff. I can’t even tell you how many hundreds of times I’ve listened to that song, which is actually hard to “get lost” in in the way I was describing before, because it’s so short. You have to just put it on again and—
JM: (hums riff)
JT: – Yeah, exactly.
JM: Well, when it comes to that song, and some others like the “The Lioness” and “The Black Crow,” I get a feeling that those are longtime fans hits. But I don’t like playing them. I already lived those moments.
“Farewell Transmission” must be one of the most heroic recording moments of all time, because I called in people that were not already scheduled to be in the band and I was like, “Oh, now we’re going to have a violin player, and we’re going to have an extra singer.” I called out all of these things, much like a conductor does – and trust me, I’m not a conductor. I’m the break man. I will not fuck you up if I am the break man, I just don’t want to move anymore.
We put, I think, about 12 people in a room and recorded that song live, completely live, and unrehearsed. I showed ‘em the chord progression, they had no idea when it would end, and we just cut it.
Steve [Albini] did a beautiful job. I noticed that at one point when it was a little too loud or a little too soft he came and opened a door to make it work, because it was just an ambient recording. When you hear that song kick off everybody knows it, and what’s so disturbing to me is the way that I ended it is I was dictating to the band and Steve—I go “Listen. Listen. Listen.” And then at one point they all stop. It’s great.
JT: I can’t even believe that was done live and improvised. That is absolutely stunning.
JM: I got all my favorite friends from Chicago, and my favorite, good musicians and we just did this record, and it has lasted. It’s got weight, I’m talking 500 pound weight; something you ain’t going to be able to lift too easy. You have to understand we’re working on a string, and Steve is throwing us a bone, giving us the studio and everything, and we are terrified about how expensive it is and he just went the extra mile. That’s the way it works and that’s where I come from. You get the job fucking done.
1. Talk to Me, Devil, Again
2. What Comes after the Blues?
3. No Moon on the Water
4. Just Be Simple
5. Leave the City
6. Montgomery Bound
7. Lonesome Valley
8. Memphis Moon
9. Marsh Fire
11. I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost
12. Spanish Moon story
14. Hammer Down
Download: Magnolia Electric Co. – Baton Rouge – 9/27/2006 – 101 MB
Sample: I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost (Live)