Magnolia Electric Co.
Fading Trails
(Secretly Canadian)

By Brandon Forbes






PLAYING : "Lonesome Valley"

Like a scene from Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain depicting the immense and somber beauty of Wyoming’s grasslands and mountain ranges, Jason Molina’s latest record evokes a sense of mournful awe. Appropriately entitled Fading Trails, this second full-length under the auspices of Magnolia Electric Co. finds Molina reining in the boisterous, full band sound of last year’s What Comes After the Blues for a more subdued four-piece experiment. Where Blues features horn arrangements, up-tempo movements, and several duets, Trails resonates more with Molina’s older work with Songs:Ohia. This melancholic edge further drives home the Brokeback comparison – Molina’s doleful voice, complimented at times by solid Neil Young-esque backing arrangements, constantly confronts the universal themes of the film: unrequited love, small town depression, and social alienation. If only the producers had heard this record, filmgoers might have been spared the oft-lampooned melodramatic acoustic numbers that pop up constantly in the film.

Opener “Don’t Fade On Me” could have practically been written for the film. Harvest- era drum work gently guides Molina’s soft guitar until around the minute mark, when the kit explodes and the guitar begins to weep. “Nothing lives for nothing,” Molina observes, “and that goes for pain and goes for everything else.” The real kicker comes in the final chorus, when the rock rises to an unheard level for the usually mellow Molina, and his impassioned voice rails: “Even Christ stayed until he had run out of doubt/But you faded on me.” Such an accusation, no doubt, is implicit in the bitter space that emerges between Twist and Del Mar as Brokeback nears its close. It’s a tough moment in the film and a tough act to top coming at the beginning of the album.

Molina understands good record dynamics, and the next few tracks deliver solid follow-ups to the power of the album’s initial moments. “Montgomery” begins and ends with plucked piano chords, filling in everything between with perhaps Molina’s most obvious nod to Neil Young, featuring nice vocal harmonization, a big roots-rock chorus, and the observation that “The road becomes what you leave/and my ghost ain’t waiting.” Cowboy rocker “The Lonesome Valley” calls in saloon piano and slide guitar to create the aural stage for a story about alienation from a friend. Continuing the Brokeback theme of disappointed love, albeit here with a gender change, Molina mourns on the subdued “A Little at a Time” that “Maybe if I send back the blues her broken heart/she’ll send me back mine” while a single guitar mopes in the background. “Talk to Me, Devil Again” and “Memphis Moon” bring the volume back up in more traditional roots rock fashion, shrouding defeatism in a slightly less depressing musical guise.

Perhaps the two best tracks on the record are also the most reserved – Molina still does his best with the minimalism that drove Songs:Ohia. “The Old Horizon” haunts the listener in the same way Jack haunts Ennis throughout Brokeback – sparse piano chords give space to moments of silent profundity. Molina sounds like a man calmly acknowledging the lost potentiality of the past. “Built my life out of what was left of me,” he sings, “with a map of the old horizon. ”The creaking of what sounds like an old rusty gate shutting in the background draws a harrowing implication – the chance to right old mistakes, claim old loves, is forever lost with the closing of the door to the past that is the present and the future. In the face of lost chances and missed opportunities, Molina resolves himself to face the pain of remorse in final track “Steady Now.” Molina acknowledges over quiet acoustic strumming that “The world does have to go in pain/Steady now.” But his resolve seems hollow and, like his voice, seems to waver at the damning prospect of spending life with the pain of regret. But the implication could also be one of enlightenment – like the Buddha, if one accepts the pain of existence as a first principle, moving forward becomes easier. But it’s hard to look at Ennis Del Mar at the end of Brokeback Mountain and see that. No doubt Molina feels the same.


All opinions expressed by Brandon Forbes are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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