Farewell Transmission: A Jason Molina Tribute
When Jason Molina died last March of alcohol-related organ failure at the age of 39, there was no memorial service attended by music industry luminaries at L.A.’s Staples Center. He’ll likely not earn a mention in the Roll Call of Death at next year’s Grammy Awards. He never recorded an album for a major label and he spent his career schlepping through the small- and medium-sized venues that are the Sisyphean hill up which indie musicians push the rock of their careers until they wear out and settle into a life of running tiny recording studios in places like Seattle and Austin.
What Molina left behind, besides the respect and admiration of fellow musicians and his fans, was an impressively sized catalog of albums released both as a solo artist and under the rubrics of different bands in which he was the only constant. Over a decade and a half his sound evolved from the ramshackle guitar-and-a-four-track sound of early Songs: Ohia to the alt-country rock of Magnolia Electric Co., which retained Molina’s early-career shagginess but wedded it to a driving, guitar-drums-bottle-of-Wild-Turkey noise that called to mind out-of-the-way bars across the New South, young construction workers perched on stools drinking Budweiser and wondering how it was all going by so fast.
But always at the center of it was Molina, the still and unmoving center, with a yowl that almost seemed to prefer staying in the background, a voice that never wanted center stage even when the songs demanded it. A voice that was in pain but nobody noticed, because we were sure it was ours alone. That’s the genius and occasional tragedy of great music, that we can think it is meant for us and no one else.
Below I present to you the seven Jason Molina songs that should be on your iPod right now:
(We’re both Spotify and Rdio friendly, so take your pick from either platform below)
“Easts Hearts Divided” – Impala
Probably the most accessible track off the best of the early Songs: Ohia records. There is a guitar, a muffled tom-tom, and the inscrutable lyrics that marked early Molina: Sleeping wartime 45 degrees, she tells me it’s forty-five indeed…What does that even mean? No idea. But it’s pretty haunting nonetheless.
“Captain Badass” – Axxess & Ace
The first Jason Molina song I ever heard remains my favorite. An awesome song to have playing on the stereo while you are making out with that cute little hipster girl you’ve been seeing.
“The Tigress” – The Lioness
Molina followed up Axxess and Ace by ditching the playful acoustic guitars and going dark. Backed by members of Arab Strap, he recorded this paean to men and women and all the ways they break each other over and over again. There is an undercurrent of anger, barely restrained, until the howling refrain breaks through over and over towards the end: We’ll be gone by morning, or be together by then… With Molina you don’t know if that is a threat or a promise.
“Farewell Transmission” – The Magnolia Electric Co.
The first track off the final album Molina recorded as Songs: Ohia (the title of which became the new band name) is seven-plus minutes of howling grief for the dying industrial towns of Molina’s native Midwest. Recorded with the great Steve Albini, the record was the beginning of Molina’s shift into more straightforward country rock
“The Dark Don’t Hide It” – What Comes After The Blues
Probably the definitive Magnolia Electric Co. song. Everything Molina was at his best – rocking, angry, sneering and scornful of the self-delusion that people practice every day in order to live with themselves. “At least I don’t hide it,” he snarls toward the end of the song. Even though he did hide it, in plain sight.
“Spanish Moon Fall and Rise” – Fading Trails
A quiet song off the quietest of Magnolia Electric Co.’s records. Never fails to call to mind dark plantations and old moss trees standing guard over long-vanished eras. Simply a beautiful track providing yet more evidence that Molina could do slow ballads as well as pounding guitar rock.
“O! Grace” – Josephine
The final Magnolia Electric Co. album, recorded before Molina slid into his last few years of health problems and rehab. It is not the best MEC album, nor is “O! Grace” the best song off it. But there is a note here, despite the lyrics (It’s a long way between horizons, and it gets farther every day) that has been missing from Molina’s earlier work, a wistful but accepting tone of someone who has waded through some tough times and come out, improbably, with a sliver of hope.
You should also definitely check out Magnolia Electric Company’s Daytrotter Session, because of the cover of Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” The Daytrotter version is only available on the Daytrotter site, but here’s another live version:
It out-Zevons Zevon by taking the classic song and putting some fucking muscle into it. Y’all old folks can have Warren and his soundtrack to the bar at every Holiday Inn south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I’ll take Molina’s cover every time.