Remembering the Brilliance of Jason Molina

[caption id="attachment_69762" align="alignnone" width="640"]Jason Molina of Magnolia Electric Company performs at the End of the Road Festival, 2009. Photo: Andy Sheppard/Redferns Jason Molina of Magnolia Electric Company performs at the End of the Road Festival, 2009. Photo: Andy Sheppard/Redferns[/caption]

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Before playing a song at the 1997 memorial for legendary troubled troubadour Townes Van Zandt, the late singer/songwriter’s longtime cohort Guy Clark wryly quipped, “I guess I booked this gig 30-some years ago.” Peers of Jason Molina -- who passed away on March 16 at the age of 39 -- might make a similar sort of observation. Like Van Zandt, Molina  became known for his alcohol issues as he was for his melancholy songs full of near-transcendent world-weariness. Whether under his own name, as Songs: Ohia, or with his band Magnolia Electric Co., the sad-voiced singer delivered moody plaints brimming with disappointment, alienation, and sometimes, desperation, but they were crafted in such an eloquent, deceptively simple fashion that they never felt overly angst-ridden. They were the kind of songs one could easily imagine earning him scores of thankful letters (or at least e-mails) from the kindred spirits in his modest but fiercely loyal following.

After canceling tours in 2009, Molina receded from the spotlight, undertaking a series of stays at various rehab facilities. Two years later, a public announcement of his ongoing battle with alcoholism was made, along with an appeal for admirers to help defray his treatment bills through donations (Molina had no health insurance). Despite hopes that Molina would return to touring and recording, and news that he was recovering while working on a West Virginia farm, his body finally surrendered the struggle that his spirit was still willing to fight, leaving the world with one less chronicler of life’s shadowy side, but no shortage of songs to illuminate the soul’s darker districts, like the ones you’ll find below.

1. Magnolia Electric Co., “Hold on Magnolia”

“You might be holding the last light I see/before the dark finally gets a hold of me.” While there are surely dozens of songs in Molina’s catalog that now seem eerily prescient in retrospect, few are more poignant than this one, captured live for Alabama Public Television at a Birmingham gig.

2. Jason Molina, “Down the Wrong Road Both Ways”

He’s been compared to everyone from Will Oldham to Vic Chesnutt, but when Molina really puts his goosebump-inducing croon to work as he does here, there’s a chill factor comparable to (but never derivative of) the most affecting ululations of Neil Young.

3. Magnolia Electric Co., “Farewell Transmission”

If the preceding song shows off Molina’s Neil-ness, this clip from a 2005 performance in Spain offers ample evidence of Magnolia Electric Co.’s ability to tap into a full-on, fuzzed-out, jam-happy Crazy Horse vibe with both ease and authority.

4. Songs: Ohia, "Nobody Tries That Hard Anymore"

This song of universal apathy from a 2000 Toronto show demonstrates the kind of gravitas Molina’s pre-Magnolia efforts could generate with just a voice, an acoustic guitar, and a heart full of artfully directed disenchantment.

5. Magnolia Electric Co.,  The Road Becomes What You Leave

Not a song, but a short 2007 documentary by Todd Chandler offering a cinema vérité view of MEC on the road in Canada. You will be summarily disabused of any false romantic notions about rock bands on tour, but you’ll get some understated moments of beauty to make up for your loss. FYI, the DVD can be found in the band’s Sojourner box set.