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Songs: Ohia



Songs: Ohia's indigo melancholy is capable of breaking even the hardest of hearts. Perhaps the key is Jason Molina's fragile, haunted voice, which struggles alongside the music like a bird buffeted by winter winds. It's a voice that belies the singer's relatively tender age (he's only in his late twenties), a weary, much-traveled, oft-disappointed voice. Molina is accompanied by delicate, fluid instrumentation: mellow gypsy-campfire guitars, quiet bass accents, and minimal percussion. Here and there you'll hear a flash of bright, sad keyboards, folky banjo, or eerie woodwinds. Songs: Ohia's lugubrious folk- and country-inflected balladry makes comparisons to Will Oldham or Smog's Bill Callahan inevitable, but Molina's songwriting is less oblique, sometimes more harrowing, and often more experimental. And, simply put, nobody has a voice quite like Molina's high, aching caterwaul.

Essentially, Songs: Ohia is Molina's alias. The songwriter grew up in Lorain, Ohio before moving to nearby Cleveland as an adult. In Cleveland he played bass in a number of local metal bands before achieving success as a modern folk singer-songwriter in the latter half of the '90s. Since his 1996 debut single, Molina has been remarkably prolific, releasing five full-length albums and counting, plus a few EPs. After receiving critical acclaim and amassing a devoted cult following with his first two albums, Songs: Ohia (1997) and Impala (1998), Molina found himself able to enlist some rather famous personnel to assist him on his ensuing releases. On 1998's Axxess and Ace, which was recorded almost entirely live, Edith Frost sings backup, while members of Chicago indie groups Pinetop Seven, Rex, and The Boxhead Ensemble provide instrumental support. On Songs: Ohia's subsequent release, the surprisingly warm, lovely The Lioness, Molina gets help from members of the Scottish gloom ensemble Arab Strap and Ali Roberts of the American group Appendix Out. The Lioness was one of two LPs Songs: Ohia released in 2000; the second, Ghost Tropic, which features Roberts and members of Lullaby for the Working Class, found Molina working even more deeply with folk idioms and unconventional sounds and instrumentation to create remarkably spare, elegiac, deeply affecting compositions.

In 2002, Molina continued to make a case for himself as alt-folk's most prolific artist with his umpteenth Songs: Ohia release and his sixth-proper full-length in six years. Process was vital to the finished album's feel here, as the album was recorded live in a Philadelphia studio using strictly old-fashioned recording techniques. While Molina's voice is as fragile as ever and the instrumentation still stark and minimal, but there's more warmth and soul in these open, meandering compositions than any other Songs: Ohia album in memory.

It's far from an overstatement to say that Molina is one of the most talented, emotionally resonant songwriters of his generation, as the collection of songs assembled here clearly demonstrates. The two untitled tracks both come from a seven-inch, also untitled, released on Western Vinyl in 1999. From Axxess and Ace come "Captain Badass," featuring Edith Frost's alluring harmonies, and the quietly devastating "How To Be Perfect Men." "Tigress" and "Lioness," both from The Lioness, are both grim meditations on the follies and foibles of romantic relationships -- as, in fact, are many of the songs in Molina's oeuvre. "Lightning Risked It All" and "The Body Burned Away," both from Ghost Tropic, are minimal even for Songs: Ohia, slow, somber, percussive numbers which suggest that Molina's trademark angst has given way to a worldly despair. And finally the urban meditation of "Steve Albini's Blues" and the poignant romance of "Two Blue Lights" reflect the warmer, mellower tenor of the Didn't It Rain album.