Jason Molina led not just one, but two careers in music. The Ohio-born singer-songwriter was both the soulful frontman of a rock and roll band, and an evocative poet behind some of the most haunting indie folk songs of the last 20 years. That voice — weathered and ragged, or hushed and gentle — belonged to the same artist, but depending on which side of the Magnolia Electric Co. divide you’re listening, often guided dramatically different sounds.
Yet Molina didn’t take on a new sound without perfecting the one that came before it. Just a year before retiring the long-running Songs: Ohia with an unexpectedly loud, Crazy Horse-inspired album of rockers, Molina would come to deliver what may very well be the greatest album to bear the Ohia name: Didn’t It Rain.
Molina had spent the previous five years releasing album after album of chilling, understated and bluesy folk records on the Secretly Canadian label, beginning with 1997’s Songs: Ohia — the second-ever full-length released on the Bloomington, Indiana label, after The Japonize Elephants’ Bob’s Bacon Barn.
Ben Swanson, who co-founded the label with his brother Chris — along with Eric Weddle and Jonathan Cargill — said Secretly Canadian’s relationship with Molina was one where they mostly stayed out of his way, and Didn’t It Rain didn’t deviate from that pattern.
“We didn’t try to hem Jason in too much because A, you couldn’t do it and B, it wasn’t in his blood at all,” Swanson says. “We had this relationship where we just let him do whatever he was going to do.”
With Didn’t It Rain, the eighth album as Songs: Ohia, Molina reconnected with Philadelphia-based producer Edan Cohen, who had previously recorded Molina’s cover of Boz Scaggs’ “Sweet Release” for a Muscle Shoals tribute album. In fact, the Muscle Shoals studio sound was an ideal the singer-songwriter held when going into the sessions.
Molina repeatedly emphasized that he wanted everything to be captured live — no overdubs. And if there were mistakes, unexpected sounds or any other curiosities that might arise during the process, that would have — from his perspective — only made the songs richer. There’s even a candid moment toward the end of the album’s opening title track where you can hear Molina saying, either to Cohen or the other musicians, “Let’s bring it back.”
Before Molina could put his idea into practice, however, he rented a purplish gray Ford Crown Victoria (“pimped out” in Cohen’s words) and drove from Chicago to Philadelphia, blaring Sadé as he rolled up to Soundgun Studios in Philly. Once inside, he needed to set the mood.
“When he got there, he set up a bunch of posters of blues legends from Chicago,” Cohen says, reflecting on Molina’s arrival. “He spent a day setting up just the way he wanted. He kind of set the pace there, for how it would feel. And everything was just very relaxed.”
The atmosphere on the album is among the most gorgeous and haunting of any of Molina’s records, thanks in large part to how sparse it is. The title track alone, comprising just Molina and mandolin player and vocalist Jennie Bedford, is a prime example of how so little amounts to something much greater. It’s barely there at times, and yet, adding anything else might spoil it.
Elsewhere, there’s a rich soulfulness on “Blue Factory Flame,” a ragged melancholy to “Blue Chicago Moon,” and an almost hypnotic sensibility on “Steve Albini’s Blues.” It’s a night-time album, through and through, which Cohen says grew out of the mood during the sessions.
“We recorded everything pretty much at night,” he says. “We waited until the sun went down, so there was an amazing mood, and everyone felt it. More than anything else I’ve recorded, you can hear it — you can hear the darkness on the record. It’s dark and it’s dim, and that’s what I love about it.“It was so pin drop quiet at night that we just loved that feel.”
There’s a strong sense of place to Didn’t It Rain. Molina had recently moved from Ohio to Chicago, and much of the record focuses in on his newly adopted home, particularly in “Steve Albini’s Blues,” which references the famed Chicago musician and engineer. But even more than that, Didn’t It Rain reflects the suburbs around the city, and the rust-belt landscape outside — from the industrial imagery of “Blue Factory Flame” to the nod to the “bridge out of Hammond” connecting Indiana to Chicago. It’s a stretch of Americana that Swanson has driven countless times.
“The drive from Bloomington to Chicago just sucks,” Swanson says. “Through Indiana it’s all flat. And then … 45 minutes outside of Chicago you hit Gary, Hammond – just these kind of, basically rust belt … factory towns. They’re just desolate, and there’s a lot of pollution.
“The second half of the album evokes that northwest Indiana-to-Chicago feeling of just driving into the city,” he continues. “You can see the skyline 10 to 20 miles in the distance. But you drive on the interstate through this industrial wasteland. [Molina] found a way to convey that … in a thoughtful and respectful way. It’d be so easy to call it a ‘wasteland’ but he’d never call it that. He definitely had a respect for that. There was humanity behind it.”
On Nov. 11, Secretly Canadian is releasing an expanded version of the 2002 album, featuring an entire second disc of demos that formed the skeletons of the sparse tracks on the album. It’s the second reissue in Molina’s catalog following his passing in 2013 at age 39, and serves as a way to both preserve the songwriter’s legacy, as well as introduce his music to a new audience.
“I hope people come away from this record thinking he’s one of the top songwriters of all time,” Swanson says. “It might be a little ambitious of me, but it’s really just that he took it seriously and he was really fucking good at it.”
Cohen, however, has a much simpler way to summarize Didn’t It Rain.
“It’s Jason Molina,” Cohen says.
“It’s totally pure.”