Magnolia Electric Co.

Band: Magnolia Electric Co.
Album: Magnolia Electric Co.
Best song: “Farewell Transmission” might be Jason Molina’s best song.
Worst song: “The Old Black Hen” is the weakest track on a very strong album.

In my top 100 albums of the 2000s list, I placed Magnolia Electric Company woefully low at number 87. Part of that is because The Lioness is, was and always will be the most important Molina album to me because of my experience in life during its release/my exposure to it. Magnolia Electric Company itself is a wonder of a record, though. It’s one that probably exemplifies what Molina was at the height of his powers: He danced between Neil Young and Woody Guthrie, while keeping a rust belt tinge to his music.

We’ve all got the vision of how we see ourselves. Nerdy Jewish guys think themselves Woody Allen; big fat party animals all think themselves John Belushi from Animal House. I’ve met a lot of women who fancy themselves Liz Lemon (if only). In a way, we categorize ourselves as one or another archetype and wishcast ourselves into the best version of that. The human brain works in a way that we try to organize stuff.

I don’t know that I wanted or want to be Jason Molina, but I will say that I see him as a better version of me way more than any other musician. Molina struggled with drug addiction for all of his artistic life and I, thankfully, do not have such a problem. But, Molina, in person, was wonderfully dark and could be a big pain in the ass. And I sort of wish myself into that space when, in reality, I’m just a shitty narcissist.

I don’t claim to have known Molina; I met him three times and he remembered me the second and third times (huge coup for me, considering my love for his music). For a time, Songs:Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co./Jason Molina (I group them as one band/artist) was the band or artist I’d seen the most live at five times. The first show was my freshman year of college in St. Louis promoting my beloved Lioness and the band was opening up for the Promise Ring (seriously) at the Washington University coffeehouse thing. After Molina and his band finished the show with a louder-than-loud version of “The Black Crow” that I’ll remember on my deathbed, my friend Scott and I ventured over to talk to him about our college radio station and, basically, kissed his ass. Molina was graceful and pleasant and humored us.

The other meetings went downhill from there.

At our college radio station, we did a yearly free concert on campus for students. It had, famously, reunited the guys in Big Star way before I got there, but had gone dormant. So, the first year we brought it back, the headliner was to be Songs:Ohia. I was among those who met Molina and took him to lunch in downtown Columbia, Mo. and he was not graceful and pleasant. He wasn’t a dick, but he was dark and sarcastic and I wasn’t sure it was a good way to begin the day. And then it started to rain. This was the first of things to go wrong.

You see, an outdoor concert in the rain doesn’t work, so the rain site had to be used. This caused confusion for the people who were attending in town and weren’t connected directly to the station.

Second, Molina was in a transition period and was mostly working on acoustic stuff. He was in the midst of recording the Pyramid Electric Co. record and didn’t seem to be in the mood to play full-band stuff (I seem to remember that he brought a full band, but I truly don’t remember). Either way, he only played guitar and sang.

Which brings me to the third point: Molina’s a famously mercurial figure and not popular enough to fill a club or Columbia’s Peace Park. So, it may not have been the best headliner.

So, Molina played a set of guitar and vocals songs to a bunch of people who were either bored, depressed or both. There was little between-song talk by Molina, though I do remember him introducing “Division St. Girl” by saying the song was about Chicago. I love that song.

The third time I met Molina was again in Columbia. He was playing a show with the Magnolia Electric Co. band as he transitioned from Songs:Ohia to that band. The show was on a weeknight at a club that probably shouldn’t have hosted him. Turnout was not great and Molina berated the audience for not being more into the music.

I’ll defend both the crowd and Molina in saying that the situation was terrible. Shattered was a good club (who the hell knows it it’s still standing, even), but it had just been remodeled and the owners were moving it toward a “let’s hope 80s night” business plan. While I resented it at the time, I understand said business plan because it’s the way most clubs go. It’s part of the lifecycle, especially one in a Midwestern college town like Columbia. College kids love 80s night.

Molina had played Shattered before and the crowd was bigger. It was at the old club, which was dingier — I’ve got an, uh, interesting story about the alley outside it that is too gross to tell here — and more suited to his music and fans. I imagine he thought it would be the same. The people who book shows in Columbia — be it the station, the club owners, whoever — seemed to always try and get him to come to town. I assume he thought he was beloved. So, I understand why he was pissed; he expected to come and have a decently-filled club, as opposed to the sparsely-attended show that was.

In our (the crowd’s) defense, it was a school night toward the end of the semester. And the Magnolia Electric Co. hadn’t been released just yet, so it hadn’t gained the exposure it would’ve eventually gotten. And, most importantly, we were there. We were doing the right thing in showing up. Why get mad at us?

I talked to Molina after the show and apologized to him. He complained about the crowd and the club and whatever. He wasn’t mean to me, but he was short and, understandably, in a bad move. I understand everyone’s bad time.

Jason Molina’s name thing seems to be in flux far too much, but nevertheless, the final Songs:Ohia release (or maybe the first Magnolia Electric Co. release) counts among his best work. Working with Steve Albini, Molina explores his love of Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, “Farewell Transmission” may be Molina’s best song.

I know quoting oneself is the height of stroking one’s ego, but I don’t know that I can summarize Magnolia Electric Co. better than I did for that best of 2000s list entry. Molina was at such a perfect point in his career, as he was done with just doing folk music and wanted to incorporate the blue-collar country he adored so much. The album’s bookends — “Farewell Transmission” and “Hold On, Magnolia” — are the epitome of this move, with pedal stee and outlaw sadness permeating.

I’ve mentioned my fondness for economy of language in a lyricist and Magnolia Electric Co. speaks to this. “Farewell Transmission” is full of lines that utilize such economy of language and seem oddly prescient with Molina having passed away eight months ago. “I will be gone, but not forever” is an emphasis line in the song as the song transitions movements. The entire concept — one Albini used in Excellent Italian Greyhound‘s “The End of Radio” — of a final transmission is a concept that fit Molina’s beautiful sense of foreboding.

Hold on Magnolia, I hear that lonesome whistle whine
Hold on Magnolia
I think its almost time

And, of course, “Hold On, Magnolia” seems like a suicide note. Indeed, while much of The Lioness has the musical tinge of minor keys and funereal marches, the full-band throttle of the Magnolia Electric Co. deals more in the lyrical notions of sadness and endings.

Secretly Canadian released an expanded version of the record this month and I’m not entirely sure of the purpose of it. Look, I’m not complaining; hearing the demo of “Hold On, Magnolia” really took me back to listening to Molina play live (never a bad thing) and any glimpse into the creative process of a guy like him is interesting.

Ultimately, I hope more people discover Molina’s work because of this reissue. Maybe that’s the purpose. I’m getting more than a little tired of the “Everything is great and don’t be ashamed of loving everything and critics are evil” and that whole thing. Life is a scary fucking place and there are some terrifying realities, many of which occupy our own minds. Few people knew that better than Jason Molina and few records can make that seem relatable more then Magnolia Electric Co. It is, indeed, a masterpiece.

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    I'm Ross Jordan Gianfortune. I am not a writer, but I sometimes write here about music and my life. I live in Washington, DC.

    I used to review each of Rolling Stone Magazine's top 500 albums of all time. Now I'm writing about albums I own.

    My work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Gazette, The Atlantic, Sno-Cone and a bunch of defunct zines.

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