Songs: Ohia: Axxess & Ace

Songs: Ohia
Axxess & Ace
Secretly Canadian

IN A NO Depression era, where singer-songwriters seduce young urbanites with weight-of-the-world country moans, Jason Molina, the frontman for Songs: Ohia, has always seemed like something of a lightweight. Sure, his pipes could match the mythic croak of Palace's Will Oldham on strength alone, even surpass him in raw, honest sentimentalism. But the actual songs of Ohia have fallen somewhat short, proving that honesty, while still among the best of policies, only gets you so far when putting over a tune. How easy it is to forget that the band's genre, Americana, has long celebrated the professional poseur whose roots go skin deep, from Dylan to Gram Parsons.

So it's nice to hear that with Axxess & Ace, the singer has made his most entertaining record to date without forfeiting an ounce of his attention to realness. In fact, while Molina's third album is musically and vocally his beefiest work yet, there are fewer frills than ever. Axxess stretches nine sparse songs across 40 minutes, beginning with the line "There will be trouble with me," and ending on a kind of call into the darkness, "Wherever you aaaaaaaaare..." Like most acoustic guitar owners, he has been stung by lost love and wants to howl about it at the top of his lungs until the pain evaporates.

But for all Molina's vocal prowess, what really makes the album sing is the hootenanny approach he takes with his six backing musicians. Recorded live and "first take" with a posse of Chicago indie elites (Edith Frost, Michael Krassner), the album carries the organic sound of musicians learning songs as they play--and, indeed, the musicians heard the songs for the first time on recording day. So when Julie Liu's violin weeps along with a jazz-tinged drum line and piano flourishes while Molina bellows "Come Back to Your Man," the feeling is more flesh than filigree.

When he plunges into the song "Love & Work," he evokes Van Morrison leaning back to drink in his session players' home-brew. And when he yowls about "How to Be Perfect Men" against a loose, bubbling backdrop, Molina sounds very much like Will Oldham. But, first and foremost, he sounds like a living, breathing man with a chip weighing down his shoulders and a backing band good enough to help him shake it off.

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