"What hath Neil Young wrought?" --Eddie Thomason
SO MAYBE NEIL Young is not, in fact, God. Devotees would dispute this, but that's why they're devotees. Then there are others who feel God is either Hendrix, Clapton or dead. But if Neil Young is not God, he is at least Zeus, fathering a far-flung progeny of guitar-rock types that, well, glut the landscape of popular music.
Would Sonic Youth exist without him? Pearl Jam? How about more direct descendants like Joel Phelps, Son Volt or Will Oldham? Not bloody likely. Thankfully, nearly everyone inspired by Neil Young gives the old man well-earned propers, and that has helped to keep him vital and fresh, if not young.
Jason Molina, the string-puller for difficultly monikered Songs: Ohia, wastes no time in paying his due. "(My parents) had a great record collection," he says. "A lot of Patti Smith and Neil Young, Roxy Music, a wide range of songwriter stuff. I was really lucky."
It's hard to imagine Molina's fate without that inspiring collection. He grew up on the rocky shores of the industrial butt-town Lorain, Ohio, in a virtual void of pop culture, save the records. "For (my parents), (the music) was freaky. By the time I was listening to that stuff, I started by picking out things that had a nice cover .... It was then I discovered I wanted to play music like that."
So he dusted off a beat-up six-string his folks had lying around the house, and started rocking. Forming a band, the Spine Riders, soon followed. Curiously, however, Molina was not the songwriter or principal singer, since the S.R.s were more of a punk band. "I ended up with a huge collection of songs I learned not to present to the band, because I knew (the songs) wouldn't work, but so that they weren't lost forever, I just started recording stuff on my own."
Molina then managed a "sweet" scholarship to Oberlin College, which is one of the most expensive private schools in the land. Lest you think our man is of Silver Spoon extraction, bear in mind he grew up in a trailer park. "I got into Oberlin the last year before they were permitted to discriminate based on ability to pay."
As it turns out, landing in such an artistically savvy enclave was integral in furthering Molina's musical ends. Friends familiar with his playing and private recordings insisted he attend a Drag City Records showcase in Cleveland, whereupon he was presented, like a debutante, to the Artist Formerly Known As Will Oldham. (He's now "Bonnie Prince Billy." No, really.) This meeting and subsequent solicitations from Oldham resulted in the release of the first Songs: Ohia release, Nor Cease Thou Never Now..., on Oldham's Palace Records imprint.
The name Songs: Ohia, by the by, comes not from a bastard pronunciation of his home state but rather a species of Hawaiian flower. Go figure.
What's surprising about Molina's acquaintance with Oldham and his oeuvre was that he had been oblivious to Oldham's existence, much less his significance (such as it is). This ignorance is remarkable mostly because of the myriad similarities in their respective endeavors. Their voices are close enough in range and style to fool all but the trained ear; they both indulged the alt-country idiom early in their careers, later expanding in unusual directions; they explore similar thematic territory (although Molina has yet to sing of diddling his sister); they both churn out records faster than bunnies breed.
Molina suffered early on from the perception that he was a Palace (another Oldhamian pseudonym) wannabe who had an advantage over other Palace wannabes in that he sounded just like Palace himself. But nothing could have been further from the truth. Although his musical ken expanded during the halcyon Oberlin days, it still consisted of mostly major-label records. So in a sense, even though Oldham's ostensibly "naïve" country-fuck minstrel act was chronologically first, Molina is the truer artist, for his music was by definition actually naïve rather than an affectation. He was not pretending to be a sheltered Ohia-an.
After Nor Cease, Molina was contacted by the then-fledgling label Secretly Canadian (wear it like a badge of pride, I say) which resulted in his eponymous first full-length. The association has turned out to be quite fruitful for both. Songs: Ohia has served as a sort of flagship for Secretly Canadian, and they've been accommodating of Molina's musical voluminousness.
The first record is, like most first records, the most earnest, and therefore sometimes a little overwrought, a problem that still nips at Molina's heels like a bitch terrier.
Since then Molina has, while sticking to his sparse-arrangement guns, made records that confound expectations that may develop in the wake of the previous record. He has skittled from spare, organ-based melancholy pop on Impala to the more cohesive love songs of Axxess and Aces (which features Edith Frost as a musical gal Friday), and then over the pond to Scotland for a recording with Arab Strap that resulted in the haunting, wounded The Lioness. Come to think of it, haunting and wounded have descriptive application for nearly all of his body of work. There are also tour-only recordings, but only a thousand lucky fans know what they sound like.
Released November 13, Ghost Tropic is Songs: Ohia's latest, and embodies a greater shift in direction. The copy accompanying the release trots out Lou Reed, Brian Eno, even Tom Waits for odious comparison, and it's difficult to believe only until you hear the record. There's a lot of piano on the record, almost as much as there are references to ghosts in Molina's work, making one wonder if he sees dead people.
But glib comments aside, the newest is decidedly the best. There's a certain maturity that has mushroomed on this release, and Molina's voice has gotten deeper and more compelling. (No, it's not puberty-related. He's nearly 27.) The album was recorded while Molina and company holed up in Dead Space Recording, in Lincoln frigging Nebraska, of all places, and has a bleak but engaging sound consistent with that locale.
Ghost Tropic is, like all Molina's recordings, hallmarked by the revolving-door policy that is his approach to recording. It features frequent bedfellow Alisdair Roberts (a.k.a. Appendix Out) and new addition Shane Aspergren, and is engineered by Mike Mogis, who either plays in Bright Eyes and Lullaby for the Working Class or has recorded them, or both (it's hard to tell from the press release).
Molina's approach to recruiting players for his records is unique: "I like to be able to meet someone at a concert and say 'I really like your music. Are you interested in working with me?'"
This ever-changing cast is consistent with his musical aesthetic of The Now. Molina rarely revisits old recordings. His favorite record of his own is almost always whatever he's currently working on. In fact, even though Ghost Tropic was released merely weeks ago, he seems more enthusiastic about upcoming projects, which will include some rock records with help from Steve Albini, and some "hi-fi" field recordings that are intended to capture spontaneity. He also plans a song cycle that will be recorded three different times with different players.
Despite this, Molina doesn't want to get too far ahead of himself. "I just want to let Ghost Tropic do its thing, 'cuz I don't want each release to step on the others."
Oh, and Lisa Germano, if you're reading this (tut, tut), call Jason Molina immediately. You're number one on his wish list of collaborators, and Christmas is coming.
Songs: Ohia is the undercard of a triple bill including Chris Mills and Damien Jurado this Friday, December 1 at Solar Culture, 31 E. Toole Ave. You will want to get there early. As this is Molina's first tour west of the Miss'sip', your chance to must-see may not come around again soon.