SELF-EDITING “I throw so much stuff away,” insists the ever-prolific Molina (far right).
How much product is too much? Most acts drop an album every two years or so. Some established artists — say, Radiohead and DJ Shadow — can go three or four years. But others, like Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard, put out so much material so often that even though diehards scoop it all up, it’s hard for most fans to keep pace, to keep shelling out cash, and to avoid wondering whether some of the releases aren’t more filler than killer.
You can file Jason Molina with the über-prolific: the 32-year-old Chicago-based songwriter has 20-odd full-lengths and EPs to his credit since starting his career in the mid ’90s, first as Songs: Ohia and under his own name, then with his band Magnolia Electric Co., whom he’s led since 2003 after retiring the Songs: Ohia name and who come to the Middle East this Friday.
Even now Molina is in the midst of turning out six new albums on long-time label Secretly Canadian. First up was the vinyl-only solo album Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go, released under his own name, in August, a stark, downcast, stinging acoustic-folk treatise on depression and isolation that was self-recorded in a dimly lit Indiana garage studio over three days last year. This week sees the release of Magnolia Electric Co.’s Fading Trails, an overview disc that draws its nine tracks from the four Magnolia discs that will emerge in the coming months: The Sun Studio Sessions, recorded this past February in Memphis; Nashville Moon, recorded by Steve Albini in Chicago in July 2005; The Black Ram, a collaboration with David Lowery (of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven fame) recorded mostly last fall in Virginia; and Shohola, a batch of older, home-recorded tracks once slated for release but then shelved.
Over the phone from his Chicago home, Molina acknowledges the doubters. “I’ve heard rumblings about people thinking, ‘If you put out all this music, is there no editing? Is it now up to the purchaser of the music to file through all the shit you put out and decide what’s good?’ That’s absolutely not the case with me, because there’s so much editing, so much quality control. I throw so much stuff away. But if I have a lot of material that I think is good and worth sharing, I’m gonna try to get it out there. Why not?”
Indeed, Fading Trails bodes well for the four Magnolia discs to follow. Molina has a nasally, wobbly tenor and a fondness for ragged country-rock six-strings and majestically weary mid-tempo chord progressions. Yes, Pitchfork was prompted to label the entirety of the band’s prior output “Crazy Horse fantasy camp,” and Neil Young’s influence is hard to deny, particularly on the opening “Don’t Fade on Me” and “Montgomery,” with their chewy, twangy guitars, taut drumming, and pedal steel. Farther in, however, Molina reaches far beyond Zuma worship. “The Old Horizon” is three minutes of doleful piano beneath the sorrowful exhalations of the singer’s seafaring narrator. “Talk to Me Devil, Again” offers uplift to troubled hearts via pretty picked chords, swelling Hammond organ, and Molina’s repeated “Baby, I still have time.” Throughout, Molina sings of ghosts, lonesome valleys, and empty roads; it’s not just stock imagery.
The work ethic that feeds his high volume comes out of his upbringing in rural West Virginia and small-town Ohio — where he was desperate to entertain himself — and from a creative drive he’s been aware of for as long as he can remember. “My dad has these recordings of me from when I was a real little kid, like, singing these stories I made up. I was always composing something, there was always music in my head.”
As a teen, he got into metal and began teaching himself how to play bass and electric guitar, though instead of trying to learn Maiden and Priest tunes note-for-note like his friends, he’d come up with his own songs, often staying up all night practicing and writing. He played in a local metal band with guys several years older, but his tastes were expanding as he discovered Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Brian Eno in his parents’ record collection. Eventually, his band mates went off to college and jobs, and, he recalls, “I was sitting there with like 40 songs that I had written and no band and I was trying to figure out, how can I present this stuff alone?”
After a brief foray into the Ohio folk circuit (“I’d play these coffee shops and people didn’t wanna hear originals, they’d be like, ‘What the fuck, can’t you do a Dylan tune?!’ ”), he gravitated toward the underground indie-folk scene populated by the likes of Will Oldham and (Smog). Despite working 50-hour weeks in a series of full-time jobs, he’d spend four or five hours a night working on songs “no matter how tired and shitty I felt.”