Under the name Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., Jason Molina has more releases on Bloomington's Secretly Canadian Records than any other artist -- nine CDs and two EPs. Sales of 300,000 copies across his discography is a long-term boost that has helped the company grow.
Molina has been one of the label's hardest-traveling touring artists, globetrotting through much of each year on solo jaunts, but more often with his band of Bloomington-based players -- Jason Groth on guitar, Pete Schreiner on bass, Mark Rice on drums and Michael Kapinus on keyboards.
Fresh from tours of Europe and Australia and New Zealand, Magnolia Electric Co. will be kicking off a 40-date North American tour on August 23 at The Bluebird in Bloomington.
Based on his run of Secretly Canadian releases since 1997, one can already call Jason Molina prolific. Magnolia Electric Co.'s new release Sojourner takes this notion to the next level, gathering four distinct recording projects and a documentary film, all produced in the last few years. (Last year's exciting Fading Trails release was a preview of Sojourner, pulling a few tracks each from the sessions showcased in full with the new box set.)
Sojourner comes in a cool package, too - four CDs and a DVD in a wooden box with art cards, a medallion and a poster of celestial constellations.
Akin to the Tom Waits Orphans collection, Sojourner is a feast for fans and a deep introduction for those new to the music. But, where Orphans is divided into three CDs that group songs according to Waits' three primary songwriting styles, Sojourner contains four CDs whose individual tones are set by producers and recording environments.
At the heart of it all are Molina's frank and pensive songs. His lyrics express a sad and vulnerable determination -- always seeking understanding, even in gritty resignation. The everyday angst found in his songs goes deep and sometimes hits the wall, yet there's almost always a flicker of light.
Sometimes the light is bright. Frequent and reverent lyrical references to landscape, moon and stars supply much of Molina's subtext of hope, like he's found a home out in the open. His crack band hits mother lode grooves and majestic riffs of poetic American rock that provide a reassuring lift to the soul-searching, but they can also sound gloomy as hell.
As for releasing all this music in a new creative bundle, Molina explained (via e-mail from Melbourne, Australia), "I honestly thought it was the only way to get all these lyrical themes I'd been exploring to settle together. There was just so much material, and every song did not need to be presented in the same way, but I knew the songs were all related. I needed a monumental challenge that would make or break the ideas I had. This box set was the form for that."
Molina relished the opportunity to work with a variety of producers. "These people are wonderful musicians in their own right. Trying to provoke a better or more complex performance seems to come from someplace genuine when the voice behind the board actually does know how to play and write and arrange songs."
Sojourner's first CD is Nashville Moon , recorded with engineer/producer Steve Albini at Electrical Audio in Chicago. Molina has a history of working with Albini, who is a strict documentarian in his recording ethic. This fits Molina's live-in-the-studio/no- overdubs approach. Albini's sound is clean and pristine, and he once again catches Molina and band in top form.
David Lowery ( Cracker, Camper van Beethoven ) produced the second CD of the box set ( The Black Ram ) in Richmond, Va., with a different cast of musicians and takes Molina's sound on a new ride.
Produced with more sonic effects than before, some of the songs on The Black Ram find Molina's voice drenched in nearly as much reverb as Jim James with My Morning Jacket. The songs carry a spooky vibe, full of ambient drift and Telecaster twang, akin to something off the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Laced with clamoring and spiky guitar lines, The Black Ram is edgier and more experimental than the rest of the set, with moments reminiscent of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and Sigur Ros.
Of his sessions with Lowery, Molina says, "This was a project I envisioned as a gift to Secretly Canadian for our 10-year partnership. I went in and did the record in secret and realized it was something that was a key branch of the Sojourner cycle."
The third part of Sojourner is Sun Session, a four-song EP recorded by James Lott at Memphis' legendary Sun Studio -- where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Howlin' Wolf, Charlie Feathers and many others changed the face of American music in the 1950s. The classic, one-room sound of Sun Studio presents Magnolia Electric Co. warmly, with Molina and band feeling the historical vibe of the studio.
"Of course you can't avoid thinking of all the historical and brilliant music that went on there," said Molina. "I was mostly concentrating on writing and doing a solid record with the band, but I also couldn't help thinking about all of the defeat and letdowns that happened in that studio as well. Every studio sees much more of that, much more of the disappointment than pure magic."
Disc four of Sojourner is Shohola, recorded by Molina himself, alone in a room. The setting fits the stark material, which lays the soul bare while Molina's guitar gently weeps. Spiced with lo-fi tape hiss and occasional faint passing traffic, Shohola keeps it real.
The 33-song box set also includes a DVD of The Road Becomes What You Leave , a Todd Chandler/Tim Sutton documentary that contains very few words as it captures the mundane ambience and moments of joy found while being on tour with a band. While some think of Molina as a man of constant sorrow, he's definitely been a man in constant motion.
After so much touring, is he road-weary? Molina says, "The road is just tiring, but I'm not tired of it. The things that used to appeal to me are long outworn. The difficulty of writing complete records and songs is never getting easier. That said, the true magic of the road, the new places, people, things, and the old places made new each night is something unequalled by anything I've experienced."
Molina predicts a change coming soon, though. "There will be a 40-date North American tour and a few solo outings. Then I am looking into spending a year or so just concentrating on writing the next record. I have a very long list of ideas, and instead of getting rid of any of them like I have to each year to do touring, I am going to work on following through on each of them. You can imagine that following the release of this new box set I have to walk in a totally different direction, which I welcome."
Asked if a new musical mission is part of any change in direction, Molina replied, "I can't recall ever changing from the ideas of catching an idea and getting it down as simply and directly as possible, of holding collaboration with as many musicians as I can, with highest regard, doing a good job and not forgetting that I never planned this to happen."
Jim Manion can be reached at .