Alt-country songwriter Jason Molina is best known for his crowning work with Songs: Ohia, 'Magnolia Electric Co.', a cosmic alt-country record inspired by the ferocity of Steve Albini, its producer. 'Didn't It Rain', though, is a different kind of masterpiece, reflecting Molina's more commonly utilised slow-burning folk rock, always focused around quiet strumming and the vocal exchanges of him and singing partner Jennie Benford. Named after a classic folk gospel standard, 'Didn't It Rain' is proof of a plaintive songwriter in thrall of music's old lexicon.
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‘Didn’t It Rain’ is a difficult record. Released a year before Jason Molina’s hippy earthquake masterpiece -- the shocking, gruelling, soul-destroying, Steve Albini produced ‘Magnolia Electric Co.’ -- it never makes peace with itself. It toils with folk rock, wrestles with it, struggling through wearied eight-minute songs with one chord sequence on the same well-rusted guitar. If you only know Molina through his most famous record, this one will be a shock: with its quiet lethargy and resigned tone, it’s a far-cry from the country punk dude who looked up at the sky and screamed “must be the big star about to fall!”. There’s no such apocalypse this time, no stakes: it’s folk at the roots, and nothing more.
In spite of this, ‘Didn’t It Rain’ is a special record, and perhaps the most crucial snapshot of Molina there is. It tributes both Cleveland and Chicago, two cities that took him for a ride again and again, and trades in all of his standard lyrical hallmarks: four out of seven songs have the word “blue” in their title, one of them “bell”, another “moon”. Molina liked to use these words in every other song, as if presenting us with a hastily sketched atlas of the lonely world he lived in. In most of his songs, you got the feeling he was lost and tracing his way back home by looking for directions in the sky. Motifs aside, though, ‘Didn’t It Rain’ is most representative of how Molina spent the majority of his songwriting career: he wrote slowly and modestly, crestfallen by the world and reacting to it with strums.
‘Didn’t It Rain’ is, as was common for Molina, a live cut. It was recorded with a band surrounding him to add sparse flourishes, as if articulating him when his stories got tied up in themselves or became too insular. Singing partner Jennie Benford offers some of her best vocal performances here, joining in on the wordless choruses of “Didn’t It Rain” as if she’s taking Molina’s hand. The backing vocals on “Steve Albini’s Blues” peek past the sharp strums to invoke the spirit of country twang, giving the black and white images Molina is producing a splash of colour. Not too much, though: this record exists in greyscale. The newly expanded version of the record, which offers Molina’s home recorded demos, actually retreats -- it offers a version of the record in which he’s on his own, deserted by his empathetic backing band. The rawness of the recordings means you can hear the goings-on outside of his house, a world that feels a million miles away.
Like a generation Y kid watching a black and white movie, I found this record stupefying at first, too dark and impossibly paced to cope with. It is perhaps Molina’s steadiest work, his misery inflicted with none of the urgency found in later works away from the Songs: Ohia moniker. But once you clear the tree-line and listen to what Molina’s saying, ‘Didn’t It Rain’ becomes one of his most fascinating and heart-breaking works, full of lyricism that demands this strict, slow tempo. On “Blue Factory Flame”, he sings like he’s lived his whole life in a black hole: “Every mile for ten thousand miles / and every year for a thousand years / every night for a thousand more / I hear ‘em call”. It’s indicative of this classic career: for Molina, there was plenty of time, too much time, a cruel endless amount of time, to make music. So he played it slow. Be patient with your folk rock masterpieces: slow and steady breaks the hearts.
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