Molina and Johnson Molina and Johnson

[Secretly Canadian; 2009]

Styles: winter blues, Americana, back-porch folk
Others: Amalgamated Sons of Rest, Palace Brothers, South San Gabriel

Despite their multitude of similarities, the core strength of Molina and Johnson, a collaborative album by Jason Molina and Will Johnson, lies in each songwriter's unique differences. Both have demonstrated a proclivity to release albums under varying pseudonyms, both have exhibited a tireless blue-collar work ethic, and both share an affinity for aching melodies. They’ve aptly demonstrated their range with other projects: they’ve rocked Crazy Horse-style with their respective groups Magnolia Electric Co. and Centro-matic, and they’ve worked the desolate melancholy vibe with Songs: Ohia and San South Gabriel. Yet it’s the stark contrast between their voices that makes their debut long-player such a satisfying listen. Johnson’s sandpaper-rough vocals coupled with Molina’s stately tone creates a haunting, desolate tone, one befitting the circumstances in which the album was birthed -- the quietness of winter, and of mourning. In fact, the record was Molina’s first musical undertaking following the death of his friend and collaborator Evan Farrell.

The first half of the album acts as a clear signifier of Molina's transitional nature, with Johnson handling the bulk of the lead vocals. With Johnson deftly taking care of business upfront, Molina’s contributions take on inspired weight. His background vocals to opening tune “Twenty Cycles to the Ground” resonate almost as much as the moaning lead guitar on the song’s bridge, and when the two harmonize over spare organ and brushed drums, it’s hairs-standing-on-end good. Molina takes the helm on “The Lily and the Brakeman,” and it’s one of the starkest moments on a record full of them, just Molina’s voice over elegiac piano. While his Magnolia Electric Co. embraced classic, rocking Americana with their recent records, Molina and Johnson recalls the stranger, spookier elements of his Songs: Ohia days, especially on the electric piano-heavy “Each Star Marks a Day,” the ghostly AM-radio-channeling “34 Blues,” and the ominous, meditative “Now/Divide,” which finds the duo cooing wordlessly over clattering percussion.

While Johnson may gain more attention from his ancillary role in Monsters of Folk, another indie-star collaboration, his work here demonstrates why that group should have considered putting him behind the mic instead of relegating him to the drum kit. His Oldham-y blues ballad “All Gone, All Gone” pairs his gravelly pipes with warped acoustic guitar, singing saw, and a female counterpoint via Texan singer/songwriter Sarah Jaffe. “In the Avalon/Little Killer” is his piano tune, a quiet, sparse reading that showcases Johnson’s voice in particularly tender light. Songs like “Lenore’s Lullaby” and “What You Reckon, What You Breathe” threaten to cling too close to the established, minimalist decor, coming close to merely mood-suiters. But both are redeemed by little touches -- a soul flare here, an expertly placed harmony there. Johnson’s voice works best as an enveloping force, painting his songs in varying sepia hues.

The duo trade verses in “Almost Let You In,” and it’s here that their combined strength is most evident. "Granted that I ever ever stop playing to win," Johnson sings, "Could you find it in the cards to bring me to light?" with Molina joining him on the chorus, "I will let you in." It’s a typically enigmatic lyric from the two, but as Molina sings "No bird ever sang on a prophet’s shoulder/ Not everybody is playing to win," it becomes clear that the two speak the same language, that they share the common thread of being able to pull off traditional music without succumbing to cartoonish brutishness. Seemingly logical collaborations are rarely as good on wax as they are on paper, but Molina and Johnson manages to sound as good as the backstory: two friends crossing paths in winter, making an album that reflects the contemplative spirit of the season.

1. Twenty Cycles To The Ground
2. All Falls Together
3. All Gone, All Gone
4. Almost Let You In
5. In The Avalon/Little KIller
6. Don't Take My Night From Me
7. Each Star Marks A Day
8. Lenore's Lullaby
9. The Lily and the Brakeman
10. Now, Divide
11. What You Reckon, What You
12. Breathe
13. For As Long As It Will Matter
14. 34 Blues
15. Wooden Heart

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