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Molina and Johnson - Molina and Johnson

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Artist: Molina and Johnson

Album: Molina and Johnson

Label: Secretly Canadian

Review date: Nov. 2, 2009

Jason Molina and Will Johnson have bummed around in the same circles for a while now. Johnson’s Centro-matic may get a little more raucous with their particular brand of alt-country than Molina’s more classical take on the Grand Ole Opry house band, but both traffic in the same kind of American roots guitar music. At the bottom of it all for both is a pervasive nostalgia that is alternately uplifting and sobering. Together, Molina and Johnson try to get back to basics as they blend their distinct styles in pursuit of something bigger than the both of them.

The scales are constantly in flux, with Johnson taking control of flightier fare. “Twenty Cycles to the Ground” is all fluttery syncopation and brushed drumming with a sparse arrangement, the kind of backwoods exoticism made for camping trips within sight of a gift shop. There’s a lot of Costello worship, and maybe some Modern Times Bob Dylan, that make songs like “In the Avalon/Little Killer” good enough for setting the mood and not much else.

On the flip side, Molina returns to the oppressive downer vibe of Songs: Ohia. The ’big country’ feel that’s distinguished Magnolia Electric Co. from his solo material is all but eradicated. “All Falls Together” could have easily been pulled from the Didn’t It Rain or Ghost Tropic sessions, which is good news for a person such as myself who still listens to those records endlessly. In this context, though, they seem out of place at best, and humorless at worst.

The third of the record that’s truly Molina & Johnson shines the brightest, when their discreet identities fall away to create Burroughs’ and Gysin’s third mind. Their voices seem to meet in the middle on “Almost Let You In,” seamlessly transitioning into and out of each other. When they harmonize here, no one’s backing up anyone else. They’re singing together.

Not only does parsing out individual styles become impossible, the songs sometimes transmute into something completely unexpected. “34 Blues” sounds like it was plucked straight out of a village in the French countryside and might be the first time either of these fine Americana boys have left the continental 48. And self-proclaimed gut-stirrer “All Gone, All Gone” sounds like it must have been adopted from Julian Koster, singing saw and all. It’s an oddity that comes out of nowhere -- which may be why they let Texan singer-songwriter Sarah Jaffe take the helm on their most memorable song together.

The two apparently cut this record over the course of 10 days, cutting themselves off from the rest of the world in a Texas recording studio. The seductive power of the first take is understandable, but their conversations more often than not only provide sketches that beg to become something more.

By Evan Hanlon

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