Pyramid Electric Co.


Band: Jason Molina
Album: Pyramid Electric Co.
Best song: “Division St. Girl” is superlative, as is the title track.
Worst song: “Red Comet Dust” is the worst song on a very strong record.

The television show Parks and Recreation is a popular one among people I know. I generally hang around people who share my adoration of Amy Poehler and find people like series creator Mike Schur to be brilliant comedic minds — I find Poehler, in fact, to be the best comedic actor working. But, the show is, in my opinion, flagging. It is not in its heyday and I don’t say that because of the first exposure theory. I did have this conversation recently, though, about said show over IM with a friend.

Me: Though, I’ll say, I’m on the downside of that show.
Friend: nooo stop
Me: Yeah. Sorry
Friend: don’t talk about adam scott that way
Me: That show is not delighting me like it used to.
Friend: ah, well.
Me: It happens. I still think Amy Poehler is the world’s greatest person.
Friend: well as long as there’s that.
Me: I still love the individuals involved.
Aziz, Nick Offerman, Poehler, Chris Pratt. Especially Poehler and Aubrey Plaza.
I just don’t feel the magic anymore.
Erica: boo
Me: Yep. TV needs conflict. I feel like there’s too much feeling good on that show.
Friend: i like its wholesomeness
that’s what makes it different
Me: It is that, yes.
It is wholesome.

It’s important to note two things. First, “wholesome” is absolutely not a compliment in my book. The second: I highlight this conversation because it brings up a larger issue within my own brain. I was raised largely within conflict — not real conflict like 99% of the world, to be fair — and conflict between family members. I joked about this during one of the presidential debates.

The triumph of Parks and Recreation is when Leslie wins the council race and everyone feels good. Watching her do small government things isn’t conflict; it’s her job and the show’s premise (small town government). Her solving problems isn’t inherently interesting because the conflict stakes aren’t as high. If she doesn’t win the council race at the end of the previous season, the shit hits the fan, but it’s also the highlight of her political career. Because the show takes place in a small town, the highest stakes are council and the mayoral race. A small show has to have its stakes tuned to the smallness of the show.

Which is to say the writers crescendoed too quickly. This happened, as well, with Greg Daniels’ previous show, The Office. The stakes were not in main character Michael Scott’s hands, but rather — like the British show — in the Jim/Pam relationship. When they got together in the season three finale, there wasn’t a ton more to gain (wedding, I guess. Which, admittedly, was a great two-part episode). When things are peachy keen in Jim/PamLand, why do I care about anything else? In both cases, the shows kept going after the biggest crescendos.

I try to think of it in terms of a band playing a show. A band can’t play its biggest hit — the thing that will ramp the crowd up the most — at the beginning of the show; that would just make the enitre experience a downhill fall. Bruce Springsteen — however much I don’t like him — ends his shows with “Thunder Road” before the encore. That makes sense. He gets the audience ready and steamed and have it climax at the right time, if you’ll excuse the sex metaphor. The anticipation of “when is he going to play ‘Thunder Road?'” helps the show’s energy level quite a bit.

In essence, The Office and P+R played “Thunder Road” during the middle third of their proverbial sets. P+R had the relationship and the council, so there’s stakes in both cases, so they made the mistake of playing both “Thunder Road” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” during the middle third. This is a mistake and it’s the reason I don’t really care about the show in the same way.

I bring all of this up because there isn’t a lot of conflict in this space. One of the inherent problems with being the writer and editor one’s own blog — especially one of this nature — is that the structure is entirely self-selected. The nature of this space is that I’m writing about records I own and I, therefore, will put on my iTunes or CD or whatever. I give these records multiple listens. They are, by their nature, ones I enjoy. This is why, too often, I write about the same artists multiple times. I suspect people who read about my adoration of Chelsea Wolfe, for example, get tired of it.

That’s why I had so much fun and really felt like I did a good job writing about the Ben Gibbard record. The record isn’t good and it makes me feel conflicted; this is an artist for whom I have tons and tons of respect. Death Cab for Cutie’s second album is one of my favorite albums ever to have been recorded and yet, the same individual was responsible for both. I find it hard to believe that the ¡All-Time Quarterback! record came out of the same person as that a capella album opener on Former Lives.

At some point, I should probably just write again about music that’s terrible. I know I had the most fun writing of my RS500 experience writing about the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Eagles because I could simply act as a polemicist against the crimes against music those two bands commit. I was able to write things like “Honestly, this is made for meatheads. Tribal tattoos and muscles.” and “I’m not sure I love an America where Don Henley and Glenn Frey are celebrated.” Also, I once wrote “They’re fake enough to be considered interesting by stupid people, when, in reality, they’re no different than the John Mayers of the world, just less attractive and older.”

The structure of the RS500 thing was such that I was forced to listen to things I don’t inherently enjoy. That list is full of great records, but the whole point of the project was to see with which records I disagreed on “greatness.” The Eagles and Chili Peppers are certainly bands with which I disagree on greatness. I don’t own or listen to a lot of albums I don’t enjoy.

I suspect that’s part of the reason I enjoy a lot of doom-y records and can’t write about the ones that aren’t. I don’t listen to a ton of hip hop, but I do enjoy it quite a bit. But, ultimately, two of my favorite records — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch the Throne — of the past few years don’t end up on this site because I can’t properly express why I like them. They’re great. I don’t know that they’re without conflict — Kanye West is the best at introspection, after all.

I used Jason Molina to buttress one of the longer and more self-indulgent early pieces in this space when I wrote about Songs:Ohia’s The Lioness three years ago. Ironically, that’s about the same amount of time since Molina’s released a record, due to being in and out of hospitals and rehab. I’ve met Molina a few times and am no expert on his personality. But, his music does speak to an inner conflict.

Recorded in 2001 and released in 2004, Pyramid Electric Co. is the starkest in a career of starkly-recorded records. In lieu of the softness of acoustic guitars or the roundness of a fully-arranged band, the album begins with a huge chord, struck by Molina. Indeed, the album’s title track is simply Molina and a slightly distorted — think red-lining in the studio, not “You Really Got Me” — guitar. Musically, it’s all minor-key and dark, with softly strummed chords building to short bursts of Molina pounding away. Lyrically, it’s somewhere between a freeform poem and a early 20th century Russian novel, as Molina speaks only in the bleakest of terms. “That’s just the cold/That’s just the emptiness/It’s being alone” are the kind of thing Molina explains from the depths of his despair. The record relies almost entirely on the conflict between Molina and his guitar, each tearing at one another until the song fades out seven minutes later.

The album isn’t simply the title track, of course. I’d seen “Division Street Girl” performed the song at our college’s free sprng concert a few years before Pyramid Electric Co. was released. It’s a pretty little song that recalls Molina’s earliest Songs:Ohia work. Telling the story of a prostitute in my hometown, the “Painted up” women goes through a conversation between the John and her. She plays therapist and storyteller, sort of hos Molina does earlier in the album. Over another electric guitar playing soft chords, Molina’s voice warbles a bit, but works well for a song about bad — and lost — choices.

It’s worth noting that listening to Molina’s darkest work is an experience into itself. Music, at its heart, evokes a kind of emotional response; John Philip Sousa’s marches invoke patriotism, the Beatles bring out the sunshine, Led Zeppelin is a testosterone situation, etc. This can all depend on the lyrics, mood or beat of a song. The key of the song matters, the instrumentation matters, the vocals-as-instruments (as I’ve written) matters a lot. It all matters.

Pyramid Electric Company sounds like futility and despair.

There’s not a lot of conflict in the most positive of music. There’s an awful lot of music that revolves around hand claps, singalong vocals and a rah-rah enthusiasm. Hello, most love songs are the Parks and Recreation of music; the only conflict is external, with zero stakes. Molina doesn’t do this. The stakes in Pyramid Electric Co. are huge. You can feel like Molina’s going to off himself at any time, like his very existence hangs on every word and every note.

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