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All a great country song needs are “three chords and the truth,” the songwriter Harlan Howard famously once said. But to hear Magnolia Electric Co.‘s electric Rust Belt hymns Monday night was to understand the trope’s country-rock application: same alchemy, really, just a little more misery and noise.
Morose yet cathartic, Magnolia Electric Co.‘s songs trace familiar blues and rock folkways: themes of heartbreak, redemption, and regret; the imagery of lightning, highways, ghosts, and the devil; and the weight of American mythology, from John Henry to Route 66. Sonically, the five-piece pays homage to a certain mid-’70s road-warrior rock, most obviously Neil Young albums like Tonight’s The Night and On The Beach (on a tour several years ago, Magnolia covered the latter’s “Revolution Blues”). The lyrics favor motif over narrative, yet rarely suggest happy endings, even in the most sonorous moments. In frontman Jason Molina‘s gloomy and dramatic Americana, salvation only ever comes as a song.
On paper, all of this boils down to a bit of a rockist cliché (you can imagine Greil Marcus including Magnolia Electric Co. in a new afterword to Mystery Train). And the group’s tendency toward grandiloquence and self-mythology—Molina’s compositions frequently quote each other—leaves much fodder for skeptics. What sells it to me—and what sold a packed Black Cat Backstage—is Molina himself, a small, self-effacing man with a big, world-weary baritone, whose hushed and haunted vibrato opens up into a penetrating, full-bodied howl. His are the voice and vocabulary of a bluesman, a penitent if perennial sinner, not a rocker or indie-folk veteran (Molina recorded as Songs: Ohia until 2003, and used to collaborate occasionally with Will Oldham).
Monday night, the group found a middle ground between boisterous albums like What Comes After The Blues and the more pensive, subdued mood of its latest, Josephine, which it released today. If audience members expected a funereal affair—the band buried bassist Evan Farrell between recording this album and the last—they should have been pleased: This Magnolia Electric Co. was deliberate but easy-going, managing as much insouciance as such sorrowful music allows (which is to say, not too much).
His hair showing signs of thinning, the mustachioed Molina seemed to be in good spirits. Between many songs, he smiled and murmured thankyakindly in half a breath. Bantering, he said a bee had flown into his mouth earlier that day, and that he’d swallowed it. Then, with jokey defensiveness, he said, “It wasn’t like I was taking a hit off the hive or something.”
In the death-bed ballad “Hold On, Magnolia” (from the group’s excellent 2003 debut), Molina modified his cadence slightly to stress acceptance over resignation (“You might be holding the last light I see/before the dark finally gets a hold of me”). He pulled a similar trick in “Talk To Me Devil, Again,” which—I’m fairly sure—the band played in a different key than the version on the 2006 album Fading Trails.
San Diego’s The Donkeys, who opened, also traded in ’70s-style country rock, but favored the sweetness of Gram Parsons and the shimmer of, say, American Flyer over Youngian introspection. In lighter moments, the young quartet sang about about hipster bars and hotel lobbies (?!), while a folky naturalism dominated more somber numbers. If The Donkeys were sometimes too low-key and breezy (think Dios Malos or Dr. Dog), ultimately they were a fine counterpoint to Magnolia’s draining highway elegies.
And drain many of the songs did. None, however, seemed to revel in Sturm und Drang more than the encore, a thundering “John Henry Split My Heart.” Here, Mike Kapinus’ electric piano hovered like a specter before crashing down like a hammer; guitarist Jason Groth (whose wild, golden curls animated the stage) turned strums into sirens while Molina pondered a heart cleaved in two. “Half I’m going to use to pay this band,” he sang. “Half I’m saving because I’m going to owe them.”
Photo by Benjamin R. Freed