A year ago few would disagree that Songs: Ohia founder Jason Molina
was a writer hanging firmly to the grasslands folk tradition embraced
by Will Oldham. With the release last March of The Magnolia
Electric Co., the final album under the band name Songs: Ohia,
and his much-delayed debut solo album Pyramid Electric Co.
this year, the comparison to Oldham now seems obsolete, and a
discussion of Molina's similarities to Bruce Springsteen makes more
sense. Both are writers steeped in the gothic view of America, with
close ties to the writing style of Woody Guthrie; both push the
acceptable boundaries of the pop song structure to create sprawling
and overblown narratives, and each has a distinct vocal quality that
is just as likely to break glass as it is to break hearts. These may
seem to be trite points of interest, but the real proof is in the
Songs: Ohia's The Magnolia Electric Co. was a masterwork that
wound back time to recall a genre-busting spirituality best seen on
Van Morrison's seminal Astral Weeks. Many of Molina's songs
topped the five-, six- and even seven-minute mark, called on unique
instruments and arrangements to provide a backdrop for his
blues-soaked vocals, and revealed musings on the tenuous line between
life and death. Similar to this, Springsteen's The Wild, the
Innocent and the E Street Shuffle used many of the same
conventions to push the boundaries his material. Springsteen even
remarked that The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle
was crafted under the strong influence of Astral Weeks.
If it weren't for the release of Molina's solo debut, Pyramid
Electric Co., this comparison would be little more than a
curiosity. Recorded during the same time period as The Magnolia
Electric Co., this album strips away all of the grand
orchestration, session musicians, guest vocalists and Steve Albini
production that made the former such a wonderment.
Instead, Molina joined up with Ghost Tropic producer Mike
Mogis to create a spare series of recordings that feature him alone
on guitar and piano, with his voice as the beacon of the album.
There's a striking similarity to Springsteen's Nebraska; made
nine years after the release of The Wild, the Innocent and the E
Street Shuffle, Nebraska is a set of dark songs featuring
Springsteen's signature guitar and harmonica work as accompaniment to
forlorn and grainy vocals about the hardships of lower- and
middle-class life in America.
Title track "Pyramid Electric Co." features a lengthy intro
consisting of only a reverb-drenched electric guitar. The song
marches along at a dirge-like pace until Molina's fragile tenor
delivers a brief tale about the construction of Egypt's pyramids,
after which his guitar work again takes center stage for an extended
passage of call-and-response leads. The unique aspect of this track
is that, panned in the background, Molina is barely audible, wailing
a melody that could either be another song or simply some disjointed
aspect of this one. This is an expansive, meandering composition
without clear lyrical or musical direction, but the complexity
conveyed, given the sparseness of instrumentation, is captivating.
The magic and beauty of Molina's voice are accented on "Division St.
Girl." The first track on Pyramid Electric Co. that demands
repeated spins, "Division St. Girl" would also feel at home with the
full band treatment on The Magnolia Electric Co., but its
inclusion here illustrates this song's power to stir in even the
rawest form. Making the most of gentle, clean electric guitar and
half-spoken, half-sung vocals, the song could easily be compared to
the Dust Bowl ballads of Guthrie or the more romantic compositions of
a young Bob Dylan. My one criticism is that the song feels more like
a fragment than a final version. It fades in, delivers two verses and
two choruses, then abruptly fades away.
Although it is dramatically more subdued in tone, "Honey, Watch Your
Ass" is an obvious companion piece to Magnolia's transcendent
opener "Farewell Transmission." Molina builds off the melody and
structure of the former to craft a pensive guitar-and-vocal piece
about the pitfalls of love. Thematically this song may be closer to
the desolation and imagery of Nebraska than any other on this
A disarming ballad about life on the great highway, "Song of the
Road" is a dead ringer for Nebraska's "Johnny 99." From the
lulling and chugging melody to Molina's coyote howl in the chorus, it
is apparent that the spirit of America's heartland has consumed him
in the same way it did Springsteen.
Album closer "Long Desert Train" is a stream-of-consciousness musing
on the failures of human nature. Whispers of acoustic guitar tickle
in the background as Molina laments, "You call that the curse of a
human's life/ That you couldn't change/ Young enough/ Tall enough/
Thin enough." In this moment of omniscience, the reason for this
album's existence is unveiled: Part of him wants to be the rousing
bandleader of Magnolia, but simultaneously he yearns to be the
middle-American troubadour that we see on Pyramid.
Pyramid Electric Co. is a vast step forward for Molina. It
provides ample evidence of his spiritual growth and shows him once
again evolving as an artist. This is where the true bond between
Molina and Springsteen lies.