Through the Static and Distance: The Songs of Jason Molina
by THOMAS BLAKE on 27 MARCH, 2015
Loneliness comes in different shapes. There is the infectious, magnetic kind, a paradoxically communal loneliness that rubs off on those who come into contact with it. This is the loneliness of barrooms and big cities, of waiting rooms and grey parks. And then there is the singular loneliness of wide-open vistas and big skies, the kind that preys directly on the significance – or rather the lack of significance – of the individual.
Jason Molina knew a thing or two about being alone. In the first verse of Just Be Simple, one of his finest and best-loved songs, he sings ‘why put a new address on the same old loneliness?’ It is an admission. He is admitting that he is resigned to a life lived alongside his nemesis, solitude. Later in the same song he appears to anthropomorphise loneliness. It becomes a living, breathing thing, an unwanted neighbour you’ve learned to live with or a malign household deity that requires constant sacrifice. And cruelly, in an apparent contradiction, it becomes something that will never leave you (remember the old Jermaine Jackson song, Lonely Won’t Leave Me Alone?) For many people there is no escape. Or rather there is one, final escape.
For Jason Molina the final escape came two years ago when he died alone, of alcoholic organ failure, in his Indianapolis apartment. But Molina was never short of company, of friends or of admirers. Like all drinkers there were times when he withdrew from human contact, when he hid things with silences or lies. But his friends always stood by him, his collaborators always valued him and his fans never ceased to adore him. One of the reasons for this is that he was, by all accounts, an enigmatic joy of a person, a confident talker, an endearing bullshitter. The other reason is the music. Molina’s songs – and he wrote and recorded hundreds of them as Songs: Ohia and later the Magnolia Electric Co. – steer assertively around sentimentality but never let the tears dry completely. His lyrics could be ironic or self-referential but he was never far away from uttering a heartbreakingly simple truth about a complex emotional situation. All this was backed up by stark, minimal country arrangements or warped Crazy Horse-style jamming.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Molina was and is held in almost holy regard by his fellow musicians. Throughout his career he was beating off potential collaborators with a stick, and in the two years since his death dozens of artists have covered his songs and acknowledged his influence. Through the Static and Distance – curated by Tanakh’s Jesse Poe – is not the first Jason Molina tribute album. It may not be the last. But the wealth of material and the quality of artists lining up to pay their respects ensures that it is still a worthy endeavour. Molina may have been lonely but he had a hell of a lot of admirers.
There isn’t a bad song on Through Static and Distance, but you knew that already, right? Molina didn’t write bad songs. The question is, how do the interpretations stand up to the originals? How does a performer go about covering a song by an artist he idolised? What does he change? Unsurprisingly, the varied acts go about it in different ways. Peter Hess and Eoin Russell – former members of Songs: Ohia – choose to dispense with vocals altogether on their new rendering of Tenskwatawa, opting for combination of clarinet and pedal steel which is both earthy and melodic. The melancholy is tangible in the space vacated by their one-time bandmate. Farewell Transmission, an epic personal apocalypse of a song, is handled with quiet skill by San Francisco newcomer Annie Fleming, with a little help from alt-folk gun for hire Brendon Massei of Viking Moses. Bob Corn comes across like a laconic, Mediterranean peasant version of Will Oldham on The Lioness.
The songs here are full of hope and danger, none more so than Being In Love, which is given a slow-building fragility by Tiger Saw. And then of course there is Just Be Simple, taken on by the album’s head honcho Jesse Poe, who replaces the clear steel guitar of the original with muted clarinet without forfeiting the song’s emotional hit. Other highlights include the elemental and slow-burning Ocean’s Nerve, given a harp-tinged going-over by Michael Tanner of United Bible Studies Brighton’s Gemma Williams (the artist formerly known as Woodpecker Wooliams), and Mara Flynn’s drone-heavy Calling Bird. There are tight, muscular performances by Nad Navillus (once Molina’s guitarist) and The Verms, who take on Constant Change and Declarer respectively, while Jesse Rifkin’s The Body Burned Away – all itchy percussion and echoey vocals – is perhaps the biggest departure.
Add to this some excellent contributions by Sharron Kraus (Ring the Bell) Thalia Zadek (who gets to have a crack at the anthemic Hold On Magnolia) and Small Sur (a piano-led, slowed down version of Two Blue Lights) and you’ve got a hefty piece of work on your hands. And it’s all topped off by a wonderful ensemble re-creation of I Could Not Have Seen the Light.
It is inevitable, sad, and strangely comforting that a number of these songs feel like Molina’s ruminations on his own demise, messages channelled through time and relayed through fellow musicians. One such is Guy Capecelatro III’s Soul. ‘I tell all my friends that I’m bound for heaven/and if it ain’t so, you can’t blame me for living’, he sings, heartbreakingly, and the lines ‘No one should forgive me/I knew what I stood to lose’ in Paul Watson’s North Star Blues have a power that can only have grown in the last two years. Marissa Nadler’s comparatively polished take on It’s Easier Now, with the lyrics ‘It’s easier now/that I just say I got better’, contains, in hindsight, all of an addict’s hope and despair. But we should not dwell for too long on Molina’s self-destructive tendencies.
It is worth noting that many of the artists involved in Through the Static and Distance cite their first exposure to Molina’s songs as a life-changing experience. Others collaborated with him, and talk of those times as if they had been in the presence of a higher being. It goes some way to explaining the adulation in which he is held. Many artists who die prematurely become cult-like figures. It is testament to Molina’s talent and his magnetic personality that he reached this status long before he finally succumbed to his lifestyle. And it’s proof that the music trumps the myth.
This tribute provides a space in which some of the musicians who rightly look up to Molina’s work can express their gratitude to him and to his family (proceeds from the album go to Molina’s estate). It also gives fans another perspective on the music of one of the best and most quietly influential songwriters to have ever tried his hand at the game. Jason Molina may never have known it, but he is not alone.
Review by: Thomas Blake