“The last Songs: Ohia record is Didn’t It Rain,” Jason Molina states definitively in a 2006 interview—not published in its entirety until after Molina’s death in 2013—with the blog Underground Bee. That statement answers a question that Molina left wide open with the release of his 2003 album The Magnolia Electric Co., which also became the name of the band that he primarily recorded under for the remainder of his life. It might all seem like so much semantics, but there’s a profound and telling truth behind Molina’s line drawn in the sand: 2002’s Didn’t It Rain, the eighth studio album by his haunting folk-rock project Songs: Ohia, was intended to be an end.
Molina’s music, especially in the wake of his death, has taken on an air of myth, but it’s the most unassuming kind of myth imaginable. A trailer-park kid with a garage-sale guitar, he spun his upbringing in Ohio and West Virginia into the stuff of hardscrabble eloquence. He began recording solo under the name Songs: Ohia in the 1990s, at the height of the slicker, more traditional alt-country boom. But rather than kick shit, Molina followed a path parallel to Will Oldham’s: cryptic, fractured, and with the faint, deconstructive underpinning of post-rock. Molina, though, struck closer to full-throated confessionals, even as his eerie guitar tunings and oblique angles of vocal engagement—marks of an autodidactic—kept him squarely sequestered as an outlier.
Didn’t It Rain doesn’t veer from the pattern Molina had established by 2002. But it’s a step forward in assurance, while remaining anything but assuring. Recorded live in the studio with a handful of musicians, including Jim Krewson and Jennie Benford from Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops, the album is a slow sketch in black chalk. The title track is one of Molina’s greatest compositions, full of glistening, suspended chords and a refusal to comfortably resolve. Molina’s narrative perspective is just as uneasy: “No matter how dark the storm gets overhead,” he sings, “They say someone’s watching from the calm at the edge.” Where are we watching from? Who is he supposed to be? The answers aren’t hidden; he doesn’t seem to know. And that slipperiness feeds into the song’s simple, circular swell.
Vocally, Molina reached new heights. Notes dip, quake, and hover. Syllables are either softly stretched or sharply snapped. He harmonizes with Benford in heart-stopping glimpses of intimacy, sounding far more like Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of slow-core contemporaries Low than any kind of corny ’90s Americana act. If anything, there’s a walloping melancholy that matches Gene Clark at his White Light loneliest. “I’m gonna help you all I can,” Molina ultimately offers on “Didn’t It Rain”, but every quiet pocket of emptiness in the song screams that he’s powerless to keep that promise. The song’s title may be borrowed from a gospel traditional, but it isn’t about salvation. It’s about having a hand, any hand, to hold as the inevitable comes crashing down.
Molina was always imagistic, and the piercing hollowness Didn’t It Rain gives him more room than usual to project his nightmares and daydreams. In particular, the moon and the color blue surface repeatedly—not only in the titles “Steve Albini’s Blues”, “Blue Factory Flame”, “Two Blue Lights”, and “Blue Chicago Moon”, but in the way those motifs are worked into the fabric of Molina’s harsh, hushed revelations. The image of a blue moon is one of pop’s most enduring emblems of loneliness, and Molina milks that archetype for all its worth on “Blue Chicago Moon” and “Blue Factory Flame”. They’re the only two tracks played with a full band, but Molina whittles that fullness into a bony vestige; both are creeping and tentative, with picks skidding off strings as if barely willing to activate them.
Cut from the same ragged flannel as Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s “Danger Bird”—minus the smoldering guitar solos, which Molina wouldn’t begin to incorporate in earnest until Magnolia Electric Co.—“Blue Factory Flame” opens with one of Molina’s most indelible verses, and one that’s become bloodcurdling in the wake of his death: “When I die/ Put my bones in an empty street/ To remind me how it used to be.” But he follows it with a sharp shift to the everyday, a move that mitigates morbid pity with something that almost approaches levity: “Don’t write my name on a stone/ Bring a Coleman lantern and a radio/ The Cleveland game and two fishing poles/ And watch with me from shore.” When, on “Two Blue Lights”, he equates the moon with lights from a late-night bus, all those lunar allusions become ghostly, recursive reflections of each other, a way of amplifying the beauty and dread that Molina never seemed ready to separate.
The moon would also prove to be a looming symbol of austerity and menace on Molina’s next album, Magnolia Electric Co. Here, though, it shines wanly, filtered through a more polluted atmosphere. That’s heard even more clearly on the eight bonus tracks included with the new, deluxe reissue of Didn’t It Rain—six of which represent songs from the album proper, and two of which (“The Gray Tour” and “Spectral Alphabet”) would turn up in different versions on later records. They’re gorgeous, acoustic demo renditions, managing to strip down arrangements that are already skeletal. But they lack the spark of Molina’s in-studio push-and-pull with his handful of collaborators. They do, however, provide an even less guarded portrait of Molina at the time; on the demo version of the self-referential “Cross the Road, Molina”, his pleas to “Set my pulse/ To the Great Lakes pulse” feel almost transcendentally pagan.
Didn’t It Rain would be the slow, sad end of Songs: Ohia, but it isn’t a whimper. It’s where Molina felt the need to contract himself to a pinpoint, gathering all his energy into a lonesome quantum, before unleashing the wholehearted force of Magnolia Electric Co. He couldn’t have known what was to come, including some of his best work and worst times, but it’s obvious this is the sound of Molina standing on the brink of something. He didn’t seem to know quite what yet, and that stark uncertainty imbues Didn’t It Rain with a sickening yet heroic alchemy: the ability to make smallness and helplessness feel somehow brave.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1pEJENf