Sunday, August 05, 2007

Sojourner: Black Ram

Continuing through the Magnolia Electric Company box set release called Sojourner, this time out I'm looking at - or more accurately, listening to - the second disc in the set, Black Ram. (I'd previously covered, at length, the contents of Nashville Moon, the first CD in the box.)

Black Ram is a collection of nine songs that were recorded in Richmond, Virginia, with an entirely different group of musicians than the current MEC group (all of whom were present on Nashville Moon). Musicians on it include David Lowery (bass), Rick Alverson (classical guitar) and Molly Blackbird (backing vocals), none of whom ring any bells for me. Nowhere to be found on this CD are Jason Evans Groth, Peter Schreiner or the rest of the familiar faces from the recent Magnolia concerts I've attended. If anything, the music here is more reminiscent of some of the later Songs: Ohia albums released not long before that group's one constant, songwriter/lead singer Jason Molina, relaunched the band as Magnolia Electric Company, establishing a more consistent line-up than had ever been the case with Songs: Ohia.

As such, it's a significantly more mellow, quiet set of songs than Nashville Moon or any of the MEC studio releases to date, with much more understated music to accompany the lyrics. I'd say it's also missing the Country & Western influences that were evident on the previous disc, which is not a bad thing for my money. And it contains only two songs I'd heard previously, making for yet another stark contrast to Nashville Moon, which was mostly familiar material for fans like me. That last distinction made for a drastically different listening experience between the two, as Black Ram has required quite a few more repetitions before I felt like I'd really gotten its pulse enough to reflect on its contents here. I'm happy to say that my appreciation for it has grown with each successive pass through it, which is a good indicator, where music and Your Humble Blogger are concerned. There's been nothing like the sort of pure joy that I felt listening to Nashville Moon, practically right out of the box, but still, this collection's slowly earning a place somewhere in my heart.

"In The Human World," like "No Moon On The Water" (on Nashville Moon) appears to have been a Jason Molina solo release at some point (whether before or after this recording was made, I know not). The opening track is one of the quietest on the disc, and it really requires the listener to come to it, and not the other way around. The first time that I knew I was going to really like this tune, on about the third or fourth time through it, came when the subtle three-note guitar refrain that's sprinkled throughout actually caught my attention. It provides such a hypnotic backdrop, once your ear figures out that it's there, that it gives the song an entirely new dimension. Among the lyrics, I love:

"You've already lost so much
Now that the moon has passed you by

All the good things are asleep in the human world
It makes more room for the dark to walk around
Speak to all my friends
Whose names I can't remember now"

The title track, "The Black Ram," is one that hasn't entirely grown on me (yet?) Although it has an interesting emotional instrumental uptick partway through, most of its music is fairly barren, having some of the least captivating sounds on the disc. Also, the louder swells, when they come, tend to overpower the vocals, to the point where I'm not even sure of some of the lyrics. I look forward to finding out what's actually being sung, once they make their way onto the MEC website. For now, this is just not one of the bigger attractions on the CD for me.

"What's Broken Becomes Better", on the other hand, has a terrific driving beat to it that really gives Black Ram its first shot of adrenaline. It's still quieter than a typical MEC song, but stands out from most of its peers on this CD in terms of energy and emotion. As silly a yardstick as it is to use, this is one of the few songs on this CD that I could imagine listening to on my iPod as I biked to work or back (where I need at least some fire to keep those legs a-pumpin'). A few lyrics:

"I learned to trust anything but love
The fight's not just in the blood
It's in the dawn and in the dust"

It's back to a more sedate pace with "Will-O-The-Wisp", which would certainly not have been out of place on a Songs: Ohia album like Ghost Tropic. It's the sort of song that's perfect for those moments of quiet contemplation, or as pleasant background music while you read or write. Nothing about it really holds my attention, though, so it's in much the same category as "The Black Ram" for me: nice enough but nothing really special.

"Kanawha," which is a river (and county) in West Virginia, starts off like a continuation of the previous song, but then gets saved by some beautiful guitar work about a minute and a half in that brings it to life nicely. The guitar sections make it a much more memorable song, and to my very untrained ears, sound like intentional echoes back to "What's Broken Becomes Better." But it's not like I even know how to read music or anything, so I could be completely wrong. The lyrics of "Kanawha" haven't really done much for me to date.

"A Little At A Time" is the first of two songs on Black Ram that were included on Fading Trails last year. It's amazing to me how much this song sticks out like a sore thumb here, as far as being head and shoulders better than the rest. It's just an amazing blend of music and lyrics, with some of the best in each category. In fact, as I've noted before, it's got lyrics that won't let you go. Who can forget:

"Maybe if I send back the blues her broken heart
She'll send back mine
A little at a time"

With a session musician bearing it as a last name, I'm not sure if there's an interesting behind-the-scenes story as to why the seventh song is titled, "Blackbird," or if it's just one of those coincidences. I find that I like the music on this one, but lyrically, nothing stands out. Still pleasant enough, though.

Jason Molina's never-ending obsession with all things lunar shows up once again in "And The Moon Hits The Water," a track with an almost-subversive drum beat behind it that you don't really notice until you find yourself completely caught in its grip by the final third of the song. Some lyrics worthy of consideration:

"Night does its work
It doesn't always follow the rules (or does it)
Moon was the howlin' wolf that was walkin' the street
Moon was the mountain that washed the shadows from the feet
Was there ever any other way to live
I thought I had to always be wrong
Was there ever any other way to live
I thought I had to always be strong"

The CD wraps up with the second song that showed up on Fading Trails, "The Old Horizon." Unlike the other songs similarly transported onto Fading Trails, this one actually differs very slightly between here and there. I mention this only because I've listened to last year's MEC release so many times that even subtle changes jump out at me. Here, it's simply the addition of some backing vocals at the end of the song, which neither hurt nor really enhanced the listening experience for me. What I've loved about this song, since first hearing it on Fading Trails, is the inclusion of something, at a few key points throughout, that sounds very much like the sort of metal-wrenching cry that you'd hear in a train yard. I love the sound of trains, and while I'm not sure if that's even what the intent of this was, it just really adds another layer to the song for me. While typically quiet, it does include great lyrics like:

"I built my life out of what was left of me
And a map of an old horizon
Arrow find my chesnut heart
Shadow for conjurin'
Big black eyes to hide my secrets in
And the map of the old horizon"

In summary, I'd put this release below Nashville Moon or the other material that's come from Magnolia since the name change. It's much more at the level of the good-but-not-great Songs: Ohia albums like Ghost Tropic and Impala, as even Didn't It Rain? probably beats it, both lyrically and musically (he says now).

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