In 1997, as the last of the tenth generation Thunderbirds rolled off the Ford assembly line in Lorain, Ohio, Jason Molina released his debut album and first EP for Secretly Canadian. The Lorain native had two 7″ singles to his name when his self-titled debut arrived in April. Hecla & Griper snuck in before Christmas that year, loaded with terse songs, a bigger bottom end, and a tougher sound for the winter. Secretly Canadian’s 15th Anniversary Edition tacks on four new-ish songs, two of them exciting, previously unreleased Hecla versions of “Heart Newly Arrived” and “One of Those Uncertain Hands,” which both first showed up on 1998’s Impala.
There’s nothing in Songs: Ohia’s first recordings that point to where Molina would end up on albums like Ghost Tropic or Didn’t It Rain. Early on, he had somewhere to be and he wanted to get there fast. No nine minute serenades with bluesy flourishes, no long instrumental passages with droning organs and bird calls —just a small band, some peculiar verses, and maybe a chorus or two where the lines bear repeating. “Pass,” Hecla’s opening song, lasts just one minute. Jason sings for about half that time. It’s more like a punk song than anything in the Americana/Palace-worship catalog, and it’s catchy as hell. “East Last Heart,” the longest song on the EP at four minutes, ends precisely when it needs to, and with very little ornamentation: some dramatic piano chords to complement the bottom-heavy crawl of the tenor guitar and bass, and Jason singing “rich kid I’m talking to you.” That’s it. Cut, next song.
Even the slow tunes are fleet of foot. “Reply & Claim,” a re-purposed version of “Citadel (Tenskwatawa),” is just a hair longer than the original, but passes with more momentum thanks to the extra instrumentation. The instrumentation is only bass and drums, but it sounds more like a rock song now and Jason’s delivery is a touch more urgent too, to keep the energy in proportion with the duration. Plus there aren’t any saxophones or clarinets brightening things up, so there’s no airy relief from Molina’s frequently dark lyricism and insistent delivery. The closest Hecla & Griper gets to relief is a cover of Conway Twitty’s “Hello Darlin’,” which is almost funny, but still badass. Jason talks through some of the lyrics, sounding proud and resigned simultaneously, and half-amused that he’s recording a Conway Twitty song.
The bonus songs are an odd bunch. “Pilot & Friend” is a slightly different version of “The Arrogant Truth” from the Our Golden Ratio EP (1998), and “Debts” is actually “To the Neighbors of Our Age,” which first saw the light of day on Songs for the Geographically Challenged Volume 2, released by Temporary Residence in 1997. “Debts” points the way to Impala with its quiet organ melody, but still fits the Hecla bill just fine. I assume “Pilot & Friend” was recorded around the same time, but without liner notes all I can do is assume. It isn’t out of place, but why put a song from another EP on here?
But I’m being grumpy about a great song from an EP I don’t have anyway. For fans already acquainted with everything Jason did, the new versions of “Heart Newly Arrived” and “One of Those Uncertain Hands” are worth getting excited about. They feature the Hecla & Griper instrumentation and are more cleanly recorded, without echo or reverb. Instead of being moody and atmospheric, they’re lean and propulsive—mean sounding songs with a touch of heavy metal in them. The Thunderbird may have left Lorain in ’97, but Molina was still representing, dishing out some thunder of his own.
note: I failed to mention in my review that this is the first time Hecla & Griper has been available on vinyl. It was originally issued on compact disc.