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Magnolia Electric Co. - Fading Trails

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Artist: Magnolia Electric Co.

Album: Fading Trails

Label: Secretly Canadian

Review date: Sep. 1, 2006

The big fans get bigger, while the more tepid fans become relative ignoramuses. That’s how it goes with some bands these days. The Internet has lowered the premium on tape-trader savvy. You still need some courage to follow bands on tour and consort with other fans in person, but with a marginal investment of money and time, you can gather most of the “rare” material you can imagine.

When Jason Molina was known as Songs: Ohia, his music already fostered the sort of emotional connection of which fan cults are forged. As his Crazy Horse-y backing band Magnolia Electric Co. solidified, tapes became files and hard drives filled up with live recordings of unreleased songs. By the time Fading Trails was in the can, most of its tracks had circulated widely in numerous live versions, and the album itself had made fleeting appearances on SoulSeek.

If you’re not a big fan, you’re still insulated from all this. You’re busy looking at porn, playing fantasy baseball, or experimenting with color combinations for your custom backpack. You don’t want to clog up your connection downloading an hour and a half of some show in Iowa City.

Even if you know the old stuff, you’ll hear Fading Trails with fresh ears. You’ll notice the standard Molina themes (loyalty, betrayal, loneliness and trucker mysticism) and the standard Molina imagery (wolves, moons, hearts, owls, and other stuff that might make cool marshmallows in a bowl of cereal). Despite the relatively heavy guitars and relatively dense production (relatively dense, that is, for famed “engineer” Steve Albini), you’ll notice a similarity to the smart, earnest, complex material Molina played as Songs: Ohia. You’ll realize he probably loves Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, and this is probably what he wanted the whole time. And it suits him.

If you’re a big fan, you will have heard these songs as they were “road-tested.” If you’re like some fans, you’ll dislike the studio sheen. You’ll continue to miss the raw pain that Molina’s songs have lost over the years. (“Don’t Fade On Me,” “Lonesome Valley” and “Talk To Me Devil, Again” are certainly sad, wounded songs, but they’re cryptic, they’re rock-literate, and their most agonized moments do not touch the early stuff in terms of unvarnished human suffering.) But it’ll be a Magnolia record, so, as a super fan, you might like it on that count alone.

Which is better? Depends on your values. Nothing about Fading Trails indicates that Jason Molina cares one way or the other. As a songwriter and performer, he has not changed nearly as much as the world he lives in.

By Emerson Dameron

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