A Study in the Evolution of Jason Molina, Part I (1997-2002)

I've always wanted to do this post, but I could never get enough legal music to do it. Until iLike happened, that is. Jason Molina, aka Songs:Ohia, aka Magnolia Electric Co., has been putting out at least one release a year pretty much every year since 1997. In that relatively short time, his sound has evolved hugely. This post will attempt to outline that change, with a player at the bottom showcasing all of the songs discussed. I've been working on it all week, it's probably the most effort I've ever put into anything online, so I hope somebody appreciates it.

The first official full-length release of Molina's music was the self-titled Songs:Ohia, aka "The Black Album". This is an extremely spare record; all of Molina's releases under the Songs:Ohia moniker were somewhat spartan, but this one especially so. Most of the instrumentation is Molina's powerful tenor voice and tenor guitar, sometimes backed by bass and drums. The highlight here is definitely "Cabwaylingo", which survived in setlists up until at least 2001, when it would reappear on Mi Sei Apparso Come Una Fantasma (more on that later).

That release was closely followed by Hecla & Griper and Impala. While the former did not reflect much of a stylistic shift, only adding slightly more instrumentation and slightly higher recording fidelity, the latter did. It began to incorporate organ and keyboard-based elements, and also showcased a broader range of song styles. It's one of my favorite Molina releases, and my favorite song from it is the excellent opener, "An Ace Unable to Change".

1999 saw the release of two more records; the extremely limited and rare The Ghost, recorded direct to boombox in one day, and the traditional release Axxess and Ace. Of these two, the latter is probably the more interesting record. Stylistically, it represents something of a move away from the sound of Impala and back toward the style of Hecla and Griper. While I tend to find these arrangements a little blase in some ways, the record is brimming with great songs, to the point where I couldn't quite make myself narrow it down to one. Included below, you will find "How to Be Perfect Men" (one of the first Songs:Ohia songs I ever heard) and "Love Leaves Its Abusers".

And then, things got weird. 2000 was an insanely productive year for Jason Molina, encompassing the release of three Songs:Ohia full lengths: Protection Spells, The Lioness, and Ghost Tropic. Protection Spells signaled the shape of things to come, consisting of nine entirely improvised songs recorded during several Songs:Ohia tours. This was followed by The Lioness, which was the first Songs:Ohia release not to exclusively feature tenor guitar. It also marked a move back in the direction of Impala, containing substantial amounts of keyboard and a broader array of songs. But Ghost Tropic was the real shocker. This record moved in the direction of ambient electronics and cohesive albums. It's not one of my favorite Molina records, but it's certainly no slouch, either. From The Lioness, I've included "Back on Top", which may not be representative, but is a personal favorite. From Ghost Tropic, I've included "Body Burned Away".

2001, on the other hand, was not a particularly productive year. A 7", a Travels in Constants EP, but nothing too noteworthy. However, that pause in productivity was worth it, because 2002 saw the release of my absolute favorite Songs:Ohia record, Didn't It Rain. Originally intended to be recorded by Steve Albini, it ended up being recorded by Edan Cohen at Philadelphia's Soundgun Studios. I've included two tracks from this, "Ring the Bell" and "Blue Chicago Moon", but really every song on this record is amazing.

As this is the end of the Songs:Ohia era of Molina's career, I am gonna snip the post here and do the post-2002 output in a later post.


Shobhna said...

This post IS much appreciated, by a huge Molina fan anyway. :) Lovely choice of songs. And "Love Leaves its Abusers" is the one that does it for me. And I suppose for personal reasons, The Lioness is my favourite album.

Thanks for sharing the Molina love with the world! :)

Wizago said...

Hey-I'm late in reading this, but I appreciate it quite a lot! Thank you very much!