It’s a pity the Grammy folks don’t give an award for Bleakest Album of the Year, because Songs: Ohia’s sixth full-length, Didn’t It Rain, would be a shoo-in. “I am paralyzed by emptiness,” sings Chicagoan Jason Molina, the band’s depressive in chief and only permanent member, offering as spot-on a description of Songs: Ohia’s worldview as you’re gonna find. And these folks weren’t kidding about the album title, either: Didn’t It Rain’s seven dark and interminable songs hang over you like a week of drizzle.
But if on first listen Didn’t It Rain is about as sunny as a suicide note, after a while this disc’s stark ‘n’ simple, slow-as-molasses country-rock tunes, produced live in the studio with no overdubs, begin to open up, revealing a depth and beauty that belie their seeming monotony. It takes a while, sure, but I’ll be damned if Didn’t It Rain’s shivering misery doesn’t slowly work its way right into your very bones.
Molina has received a fair share of abuse for sounding like a cross between the artist formerly known as Will Oldham and Neil Young, and it’s true that his high lonesome voice bears a singular resemblance to Oldham’s and that his songwriting brings to mind “Helpless”-era Young. But give Molina his due: This guy’s glummer than Oldham and Young put together. Believe me, after you’ve listened to him go on about “endless, endless, endless, endless, endless depression” in his mournful tenor, you’ll turn to Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” with a sense of relief.
Blue is the color of depression, and Molina never lets us forget it. We’ve got, let’s see, “Blue Chicago Moon,” “Two Blue Lights,” and “Blue Factory Flame.” Toss in a sad little ditty about the moon (the oddly titled “Steve Albini’s Blues”) and a picture begins to emerge of an artist whose life seems to be one long night’s journey into a day that never arrives. Only on the almost romantic “Two Blue Lights,” in which Molina, accompanied by bluegrass chanteuse Jennie Benford, sings of “Two blue lights/One’s the blue light of the late-night bus/One’s the blue light of the moon over us,” and the slightly more up-tempo “Ring the Bell” does the mood lift a bit—though you’ll hardly be tempted to get up and do the Watusi.
Still, some of these songs are magical. “Steve Albini’s Blues” is built on a pair of repeated chords that sound like nothing so much as wipers moving ceaselessly across a wet windshield, and they provide the perfect accompaniment to a song about driving on a rainy night beneath a “big city moon/between the radio towers/between the big diesel rigs.” And though the slow burn of “Blue Factory Flame” bears a more than passing resemblance to “Cortez the Killer” (sans the guitar freakout), the lovely paired vocals of Molina and Benford prevent it from straying too far into Crazy Horse country.
Which is more than I can say for “Cross the Road, Molina,” whose full electric band, bare-bones drumming, and plodding rhythm simply reek of flogged-to-death Horsiness. But if Molina’s despondency seems overdone at first, less a symptom of bad brain chemistry than a perverse marketing trick—surely nobody this tormented could get out of bed, much less make music—the theme that gradually emerges from the murk of this album is, oddly enough, hope. “You are not helpless,” he sings on “Cross the Road, Molina.” “I’ll help you to try/Try to beat it.”
It’s this attempt to connect across the emptiness that separates us all that lifts Molina above the professional dwellers in despair (I’m talking to you, Nick Cave) and makes his particular parcel of darkness worth wandering in for a while. After all, anyone who’s ever had the world come down all around him and forced himself to pick up the pieces and start again, even if things can’t ever be the same again, will understand the pain, anger, and ultimate acceptance of “Ring the Bell,” which just might be the best track here.
Backed by strummed guitars and some very, very pared-down strings, Molina opens with the defiant “Help does not/Just walk up to you/I could have told you that/I’m not an idiot.” As the song’s cello-anchored melody rises and falls, Molina runs a gamut of emotions, trying to explain away his seeming powerlessness in the face of pain (“Looks like I’m not trying/I don’t care what it looks like”) only to finally recognize and acknowledge, “If there’s a way out it will be/Step by step through the black.” When the whole thing comes to a close in a beautiful cascade of acoustic picking and fluttering-heartbeat percussion, you’ll be about ready to give up sunshine altogether.
The forecast for Sometimes Good Weather Follows Bad People, by contrast, is hot and dry—maybe a little too dry. The disc compiles the first two out-of-print EPs by Califone, whose members all hail from Chicago’s late and lamented indie-rock outfit Red Red Meat.
Why a bunch of guys would break up one band only to re-form under a new name is a mystery to me. But then again, the two bands do have completely different sounds. Red Red Meat served up a warped variant of basic guitar-based blues rock. Califone, on the other hand, takes an artier approach, fusing programmed beats and synthesizers with all manner of percussion, organ, and even some bona fide Fleetwood Mac-style acoustic guitars.
Though the combination of singer/multi-instrumentalist Tim Rutili’s distorted vocals and the programmed drums seems like a recipe for the kind of smoldering, ennui-laden pap that Portishead fans love to lap up, Rutili & Co.—that would be Ben Massarella (drums) and Tim Hurley (guitars, synths, percussion, pump organ, bass, socket wrench, you name it)—never fail to liven things up with some sort of engaging instrumental masterstroke, whether it be the steel drums that make “Silvermine Pictures,” the haunting piano figure that runs through “Electric Fence,” or the wheezing organ that rumbles through the creatively titled “Down the Eisenhower Sun Up w/Mule.”
Sometimes Good Weather has an almost ascetic feel to it. But if these smarty-pantses seem more inclined to rock with their heads than with their hearts, they rarely let their avant-garde pretensions degenerate into solipsistic studio experimentation. The exceptions are two takes of an Einsturzende Neubauten homage, “To Hush a Sick Transmission,” which, I would kindly submit, is two more versions than the album needs.
What these guys more often wind up with are weird donkey-giraffe hybrids that somehow manage to live and breathe. “When the Snakehandler Slips” comes off sounding like an improbable mix of the Beastie Boys and Sparklehorse, and “Down the Eisenhower Sun Up w/Mule” is pure slinkiness, despite its jagged thrown-elbow guitar lines and a set of surreal lyrics that include lines such as “Oil up your carpet burns/Tripping up the gospel plow/No desire to raise the wreck/Saddle up your coma.” And “Don’t Let Me Die Nervous”—which includes the immortal lines “like a cross-eyed baby/Teething on a rusty knife—sounds like a cut off the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack as reinterpreted by, well, some smarty-pants avant rockers from Chicago.
But just when you think they’ve done gone all countrified on ya, the good folks of Califone suddenly turn “Dock Boggs,” which you would expect to be some banjo-heavy tribute to the American folk legend and Greil Marcus wet dream of the same name, into a droning synthfest, complete with a four-word set of lyrics that go “Got no sugar/Got no honey” over and over again. Ah, these unpredictable arty types.
And that’s really Califone’s problem in a nutshell: As infatuating as Sometimes Good Weather can be, it’s a tough disc to love. There’s something algebraic and sterile in even the simplest of these passion-starved songs; they hint at arcane algorithms, abstruse formulae, and trigonometry. And though beautiful-minded calculations can get you an Oscar, they sure as shit won’t help you with rock ‘n’ roll. CP