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Review: Songs: Ohia, “Magnolia Electric Co. (10th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)”

Two forces define Jason Molina’s entire career: work—he was almost obsessively dedicated to his craft—and his band. In 2003 he brought these forces to Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio in Chicago and, with nine other musicians, caught lightning in a bottle. Up to that point Molina had made a case for his being a great songwriter, but on Magnolia Electric Co. he became a great bandleader. Those nine other musicians share the spotlight with him on these eight songs, and rightfully so. They’re an integral reason Magnolia ended up one of the best rock ‘n’ roll records ever recorded.

From his debut 7″ in 1996 until 2003 Jason Molina’s band changed with virtually every new release. He played and recorded with Arab Strap, Richard Youngs, Geof Comings, Jonathan Cargill, Mike Mogis, Edith Frost, Dave Fischoff, Alasdair Roberts, and many others; too numerous to count here.

These are the people, as much as Molina, who made Songs: Ohia what it was. Jason knew this and admitted it in various interviews. With Magnolia Electric Co. he acknowledged it, and practically handed the album over this friends and fellow musicians.

The big themes come first: transformation, doubt, partnership, work, and fate—Jason’s magical lyricism rides on top of these concerns. He communes with spectral guides and ghostly conspirators; presents deserts, flowers, and ghost towns as trail cairns for lovesick wanderers; and draws Comiskey Park together with the ancient light of distant stars. He writes about broad spaces, thoughts, and inner experiences, and then brings them to life with these details. Until, in the album’s penultimate moment, as “John Henry Split My Heart” nearly flies off the rails, Molina reels the band’s energy in for just a few lines. In the equivalent of a rock ‘n’ roll soliloquy, he sings, “Boy what you gonna do with your heart in two?” He replies, “Only if it’s good enough, half I’m gonna use to pay this band. Half I’m saving, ’cause I’m gonna owe ’em.”

Jason Molina was undoubtedly a great songwriter. As his solo albums, numerous solo bootlegs, and the newly reissued Magnolia demos show, he could carry a song all on his own, sometimes just on the strength of his voice. For the 2003 recording session, he had worked out all the lyrics in advance, knew the basic chords and shapes the songs would take, and maybe even knew how everything would fit together. A few of those songs had been tested on the road the year before too, with a band in tow. But incredibly several of the album’s most memorable melodies aren’t there in the demos, or even in the pre-album live versions.

Jim Grabowski’s floating Wurlitzer accompaniment on “Just Be Simple,” Dan Macadam’s dancing violin on “The Old Black Hen,” Dan Sullivan’s angular guitar playing, even Mike Brenner’s lap steel lead on “Farewell Transmission”—they were all almost unbelievably invented by the musicians, in the studio, on the spot, without the benefit of knowing the songs well in advance, using overdubs to fix mistakes, or having rehearsal time. Jason wasn’t kidding about owing them.

That spontaneity gives the music its loose, anything-could-happen feel; the sort of rambling, improvisational quality that causes listeners to draw connections to country and gospel music when they hear the album. Molina’s ideas, what he brought to the table as a writer, pull the record in the opposite direction. He’s the one that makes the music sound tightly wound; it’s his ability as a leader that makes it all sound inevitable.

And that says nothing of the incredible rhythm section Jason had in Jeff Panall and Rob Sullivan, or of Jennie Benford’s haunting harmonies, or of spectacular start on side B, where he gives up the mic to Lawrence Peters and Scout Niblett on “The Old Black Hen” and “Peoria Lunch Box Blues.” Jason disappears into both of those songs, making it hard to say where he even is in the mix. They’re his songs sure enough, but it’s the team that’s making them sing. Other bands have worked in a similar way, but few have left so much to the fates and come out the other end with an album that sounds as confident and energetic as Magnolia Electric Co.

To the inclusion of the reissued demos, this 10th anniversary edition adds two studio recordings; one brand new, one difficult to find until now. Acoustic versions for both songs were featured on the demo disc in the album’s limited first edition, but the big draw for anyone who has those already are these studio additions. “The Big Game Is Every Night” was previously available on the Japanese edition of the album, but thank God it’s finally available domestically because it’s stunning, and almost perfectly embodies the entire album. Above a dark, swirling mass of droning strings, Molina delivers urgent line after urgent line of historical images, references, and self-accusations that only he could have imagined. Cutting it from the record must have been painful, but it’s such a massive black hole of a tune that it would have swallowed all the light around it. It makes perfect sense on it’s own, after the album has ended, or on the 10″ that comes with the vinyl version.

“Whip-Poor-Will,” on the other hand, falls a bit flat. The demo version is great, and the studio treatment it received on Josephine is heart-rending, but the Magnolia version simply sounds incomplete, as if Jason and Jennie Benford had a good idea, but couldn’t find a way to make it work with the time they had.

Hearing it reinforces just how perfect everything else is. Unbelievable is a good word for it, and maybe lucky too. But good bands make their own luck, and this band was as good as they come. As good as the ones Dylan had in ’64 and ’65, as rough and powerful as Crazy Horse, at times as heavy and as energetic as Hendrix, Redding, and Mitchell. Together, these ten musicians could go toe to toe with anyone, and that’s not hyperbole. Make no doubt about it, it’s a fact; true like the solid earth. All you have to do to know it is listen.

Magnolia Electric Co. is available on Secretly Canadian
Sound samples available at Brainwashed.com

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Review: FKA Twigs, “EP2”

Ambiguity hangs from every word that comes out of 25 year old Tahliah Barnett’s mouth. She sings about sex, love, craving, deception—and sounds direct enough doing it—but what she leaves out of her songs is just as important as what she keeps in them. Her accomplice, producer and Yeezus collaborator Arca, couldn’t be more sympathetic. He matches her terse, enigmatic professions and weightless melodies with a magic show of slow-motion rhythms and phantom effects, making the best possible use of repetitious forms to emphasize and heighten the drama in her lyrics. EP2 is a pop record, but FKA Twigs and Arca pull it off so spectacularly that it sounds and feels like more.

In interviews, FKA Twigs admits that she likes to work quickly. “I don’t like to labour over things,” she says. “In my experience, the first idea is usually the best one.” That dedication to immediacy is most obvious in her lyrics. On opener “How’s That” Twigs sings a total of about six lines, most of them delivered in fragments: one question, one incomplete thought that could be read sexually or spiritually, and five moaned exclamations, which are repeated incrementally over a voluminous bed of chromatic noise. With every repetition Twigs and Arca add a level of intensity to the sung lines, giving mundane statements like “you know everything” a cathartic insistence and a special emphasis.

That is basically how the duo operates for the entirety of the record. Arca builds a house of mirrors around Twigs’s sparse lyrics, anchors it with a heavy low end, and adds bits of psychedelic color to help play up the uncertainty and immediacy of the written lines. There’s lots of pitch-bending and lurching rhythms, pulses that build pressure and then fizzle out, and awkward movements that stutter and hesitate before finally getting in line. When the strong climaxes do come, they seep into the mix like an injection of molasses. “Papi Pacify” practically explodes during its chorus; strings spasm and double over the top of each other; the wavering melody of the verse turns suddenly confident and dark; the rhythm picks up a thumping persistence, and Twigs’s voice rises to match Arca’s wave of noise.

It all sounds ecstatic, but Barnett avoids the usual love song clichés and digs into the meat of her subjects, pulling out absurdity, contradiction, and bathos for the attentive. She plays on the violent connotations of pacification, leaves the usual inside-outside dichotomy to be read either perversely or transcendentally, and pens a strange encomium to free love, which might also be a condemnation of objectification and prostitution—sexual or otherwise. Her videos, most of which are either directed or co-directed by her, reinforce that multiplicity. In “Papi Pacify” it isn’t clear whether she’s being dominated physically or secretly pulling the strings, and “How’s That” treats the human form like an obstacle to something altogether more fluid.

Nothing is as it seems, which is actually a nice summary of the EP. Twigs and Arca are working with a formula everyone knows. It’s pop music. But the way they handle their material disguises that fact. They know the shape and extent of their art, and rather than playing by the rules or trying to bust it wide open, they’re walking a middle path, finding smart ways to stretch, dye, and warp it. It’s tempting to call EP2 experimental, but it’s clear that FKA Twigs knows exactly what she’s doing.

EP2 is available on Young Turks
Review originally published at Brainwashed.com, with links to the full songs.


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Review: Philippe Lamy, “Drop Diary”

Daniel Crokaert’s Mystery Sea label challenges artists to produce music inspired by and infused with the mystique of “liquid states,” whether that means using the sound of amplified water or catching the unpredictable flow of human perception on disc. French musician and painter Philippe Lamy comes at that challenge from both directions on Drop Diary, using the sound of water to focus on the way various environmental and synthetic sounds interconnect. Each piece is stacked with tiny sounds, but the way he weaves them all together gives the album a beautiful, supernatural quality, as open and as alive as the environments used to make it.

Lamy treats the sound of water like a constant in his otherwise stream-of- consciousness productions. In some instances it echoes nakedly, in others it drones on almost inaudibly, masked by waves of digital refuse and processed noise. But it’s always there. Philippe pours it into metal pans and glass cups. He captures its fall from branches and awnings during and after a storm, and he records its sibilant singing as it splashes and cuts down streams and over surfaces.

He combines these noises with other environmental and synthetic sounds, forcing his listeners to imagine each element as part of a larger web of events and motions. Those motions propel his music forward and reshape the rigid digital sounds into a less definite, more accommodating state. The crunch of broken glass mingles with a horse trotting down a brick road, which then rubs elbows with the sound of water trickling through pipes, which tumbles into a burst of digital noise before coming to rest in a still room, with a light storm passing by outside.

Lamy presumably took these sounds from places he knows well, and he uses the proximity of those places to arrange the music. He connects horse hooves to lawnmowers to throbbing, Badalamenti-esque synthesizers in a kind of four dimensional sound photo; not because there’s a secret narrative running between them, but because these things exist side by side somewhere in France, where the album was recorded. That continuity calls into question whether the spaces Lamy recorded are distinct and individual locations at all, and not artificially determined segments of one uninterrupted space. Is it the sound that flows or does the flowing come from the consciousness that connects all the dots?

As the album progresses Philippe removes many of his sound sources. Instead of tumbling over one another, events start to come one and two at a time. Birds sing in the far distance, insects chirp and buzz with them, the sound of water echoes ever clearer. By the time it’s over, Lamy has slowed time down and reduced the music to an almost meditative hum. As the field recordings intermingle, an exciting sense of scope materializes; a feeling that the very smallest things in the world are all connected, and that something much bigger is waiting just over the horizon.

Drop Diary is available on Mystery Sea
Sound samples available at Brainwashed.com