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Jason Molina
Pyramid Electric Co.
Secretly Canadian

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 albums.

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 album.

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.

by Jason Korenkiewicz

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