Magnolia Electric Co.'s Sojourner is a kind of "love for the fans" offering. It comes encased in a wooden box, with a sliding top, with the band's logo imprinted on the front. Inside are four different CDs, containing four different sessions (and corresponding postcards), recorded in as many different places with four different lineups. There is also a short DVD documenting the band's 2005's Canadian tour in 2005, by Todd Chandler, Tim Sutton, and Ava Berfkovsky. There is a folded poster as well. Inside a small black velveteen pouch there is a pewter medallion with the band's logo engraved on it. It's a memento mori of a time spent traveling through these songs with the journeyman guide. It is limited to 5,000 copies and is available from the band's label, Secretly Canadian, for $37 postpaid. Some of the material on the four recorded discs -- three albums (entitled Nashville Moon, Shohola, and Black Ram) and an EP, Sun Session (recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis) -- has appeared elsewhere before. That said, many songs are here in very different incarnations, recorded, re-recorded, or demoed by Jason Molina himself. But this is no mere odds-and-sods collection. In fact, it feels like Molina must be exhausted, by being so prolific.
Fading Trails, released in September of 2006, contained nine of the songs from these different sessions, giving it its rather schizophrenic character. Nashville Moon was recorded with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio in Chicago. It contains 12 cuts, and only "Lonesome Valley," "Montgomery," and "Don't Fade on Me" were included on Fading Trails. This is a full-band set, with Molina accompanied by six other musicians including Jason Evans Groth on lead guitar, Mark Rice on drums, Michael Kapinus on keyboards, Jonathan Cargill on backing vocals, Mike Brenner on lap steel, and bassist Pete Schreiner. Given its title, this is the most "country" set in the box. But Molina's country music is more haunted than hunted. Some of these tunes, like "Hammer Down" and "North Star," appeared on What Comes After the Blues but in radically different, stripped-down versions. They feel more like road songs performed in a smoky barroom than late-night back-porch confessionals. These full-on band treatments add heft and dimension, and underscore them somehow as "definitive."
The Sun Session EP, just over 15 minutes in length, was recorded in a single day while the group was on tour in 2006. The band received payment in studio hours from the venue that hosted them. "Memphis Moon" and "Talk to Me Devil Again" were issued on Fading Trails, but the other two tracks, a freshly recorded "Hold on Magnolia" (originally found on the Songs:Ohia album that gave Magnolia Electric Co. its name) and the band's reading of the traditional "Trouble in Mind," are new. Shohola contains eight cuts with Molina accompanying himself on a guitar. Nothing more. It is the spookiest of the four recordings for sure. While the What Comes After the Blues album may have been spectral in its minimal approach, this set feels positively skeletal. Again, the hints were on Fading Trails in "Steady Now" and "Spanish Moon Fall and Rise," but they only lower the shroud. A slow, lonesome guitar frames Molina's sense of desolation in the lyrics of "Night Country" -- "I have to live this way/Be the builder of no house/Oh lone pine on the fading trails/I join you now/The night country comes...." This disc is only 25 minutes long, but any more would be oppressive.
The final album in the set -- or first depending on the way you decide to listen to them -- is Black Ram, another full ensemble set with David Lowery, Andrew Bird, Molly Blackbird, Rick Alverson, and Miguel Urbitzondo. It begins mournfully with the slow, meandering 4/4 of "In the Human World," but the mix swells even as the tempo continues to drag. The refrain empties out into a wave of Mellotron and harmonium, as guitars unwind. And just as it all becomes nearly full-bodied, the tune just ends. Each tune has a way of beginning with less than it closes. The title track commences as a mutant blues with tinny acoustic guitars, but almost as soon as Molina opens his mouth with his strange incantatory chant, referring to both a person and the person's reflection in the natural countryside, eerie sounds, electric guitars, and reverb envelope it. It's all so disembodied it can barely be called a song. Black Ram is the place where this collection should either begin or end. It doesn't belong in the middle because it's the most physical of the four discs, and because there's at least the determination to find resolve, even if it ends in a kind of lyrical, philosophical, and first-person failure. In other words, the same spirits who have dogged Molina on every previous recording are still here, shape-shifting to meet his every challenge. There's nothing left to do but welcome them in. Sojourner is an aptly titled monolith, one that invites fans of Magnolia Electric Co. with a "thank you for believing," even as it urges them to take in more of the picture than ever before.