Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for the ‘Singer-songwriter’ Category

Discovering the brilliance of Jason Molina


THOUGH his name seemed vaguely familiar, I had never heard the music of Jason Molina, till I read the news of his recent death in the Guardian website. Today, I am totally hooked to his songs, wondering how I missed out on someone who’s easily one of the best songwriters of the past two decades.

Jason died on March 16 at the young age of 39, following organ failure caused by excessive consumption of alcohol. He recorded songs under his own name, or under the group names Songs: Ohia or Magnolia Electric Co, where he invited different guest artistes.

Honestly, I might not have read the Guardian article seriously, but a couple of lines instantly grabbed my attention, as writer Everett True described Jason as “a singer-songwriter of singular grace” and that “everything he created had a beautiful handmade feel.”

Naturally, such free-flowing accolades aren’t meant to be taken lightly. I keep reading more about Jason, and soon heard his song ‘The Dark Don’t Hide It’, which instantly hit me with its jangling alternative rock electric guitars, a country pedal steel guitar in the backdrop, and the lines:

Something held me down and made me make a promise
That I wouldn’t tell when the truth forgets about us
But saying it now comes easily
After finding out how you’ve been using me
At least the dark don’t hide it¸ At least the dark don’t hide it

Hugely impressed, I heard his other songs, first on YouTube, and then on which is streaming his entire catalogue for a limited period. There were many gems – ‘Almost Was Good Enough’, ‘Long Desert Train’, ‘Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go’, ‘The Harvest Law’, ‘Didn’t It Rain’, ‘Northstar Blues’, ‘Ring The Bell’, ‘Farewell Transmission’, ‘Song For The Road’, ‘Such Pretty Eyes For A Snake’ and the strangely-titled ‘Honey, Watch Your Ass’. And there are numerous songs I am yet to hear.

It’s just the third day since I’ve immersed myself in Jason’s music, but a few thoughts come to mind. To begin with, how does one describe his sound? He’s been categorised as alternative folk-rock or indie-rock, but that’s because of the obvious blend of alternative rock and country/ folk that one finds in many tunes, with a good mix of electric and acoustic.

Lyrically, many songs may remind you of Leonard Cohen, moreso because they are melancholic and dark, and yet leave you with a sense of hope, and in some cases, even a smile. Influences of Bob Dylan and Tim Buckley also seem evident in the words, and the overall sound would make you think of Tim Hardin, Nick Drake or Jeff Buckley, and at times even Neil Young.

Whatever, there’s a certain uniqueness in Jason’s music that makes it so effective, so endearing, so ethereal. At the same time, he was really prolific, releasing 19 albums, six EPs and man singles since 1996, including an album in collaboration with Will Johnson. Some of his albums, like “What Comes After The Blues’, ‘Magnolia Electric Co’, ‘The Lioness’, ‘Axcess & Ace’, ‘Didn’t It Rain’ and ‘Autumn Bird Songs’, are filled with songs that can only be termed as outstanding.

Still, in the larger scheme of things, Jason Molina never got the recognition he deserved. The masses barely knew about him. Part of the reason may be that he was never on any of the major record companies. His indie label Secretly Canadian has obviously done a lot not only to promote his music, but also to raise funds for his treatment. Yet, his audience seems limited to a select group, who all swear by his music, at least going by some of the tributes one has read in blogs and on YouTube.

Jason had been in terrible health for the past few years, doing his round of rehabs. Yet, he kept writing music till the very end. His chronic alcoholism was well-known. And though one can’t say it for sure, one would assume that his personal condition and mental framework were reflected very clearly in the songs he wrote.

It’s strange, of course, that one gets to hear a genius like him only after his death. A similar thing happened with singer-songwriter Terry Callier (see earlier blog). A great singer every which way, he wasn’t too well-known among the masses, but after he passed away in October 2012, his songs suddenly hit the airwaves. Personally, I had heard a few Callier songs before, but actually discovered his music only after he died.

Jason had a huge amount of talent, which needs to be showcased and spread to the serious listener at this stage. To people who follow words and meaning, to those who want their music to have depth and substance.

A good way to start is with the song ‘Long Desert Train’. Just a gentle acoustic guitar and a heavenly voice. One may simply search the song on YouTube, but it would also be ideal to check out its words, which I am reproducing below in its entirety.

This is Jason Molina at his best. And this is only one of them. What imagination, really. Hopefully, more and more people will discover this magician.

Long Desert Train/ Jason Molina, from the album ‘Pyramid Electric Co’

You used to love a lot of things
You used to love talking
This you never told me about

If it’s what your eyes were saying
I already figured it out

I could just tell it was bad
I couldn’t tell how bad
You never took off your shades
And you stayed like that for days

I guess your pain never weakened
Your cool blood started burning
Scorching most of us in the flames

But there are things you can’t change
There are things you can’t change

You called that the curse of a human’s life
That you couldn’t change

Said you’d never be old enough
Or young enough
Tall enough
Thin enough
Smart enough
Brave enough
Rich enough
Pretty enough
Strong enough
Good enough
Well you were to us

You wanted silence by itself
Just the word
You wanted peace by itself
Just to learn

There were things you couldn’t change
You got the dull pounding rain
You got the last car in the long desert train
You almost made it
You almost made it again



Recommending the late genius Terry Callier

SUNDAY, October 28, was a rather sad day for American music, with news that Terry Callier had passed away. Now, a lot of people ― specially in India ― may not have heard him, unless they’ve caught some of his later work that did the rounds on the London underground scene from the late 90s onwards. So for those who’ve missed his brilliance, let’s begin with a few basic introductions.

To start with, Callier was a Chicago-bred soul singer-songwriter-guitarist whose music also embraced the jazz, blues and folk spectrums. Secondly, he was rather under-rated, probably because he never got into marketing himself. Thirdly, after doing a string of albums in the 70s, he gave up music for nearly 18 years to study and pursue computer programming and look after his family, only return by guesting with acts like Massive Attack, Beth Orton, Paul Weller and Koop.

The most important thing about him, of course, is that he possessed one of the most haunting and soulful voices, something that gripped you with its sheer panache, perfection and phrasing. Even in terms of lyrics, the songs were way above par, dealing with romance, peace, unity and even revolt. A true musician, in every sense.

If one has to really get onto Callier’s music, where does one begin? Sadly, one may not find his records in Indian stores. Luckily, YouTube contains a wealth of his material. One can spend hours admiring him.

The trick, of course, is to start with the right songs. And here, we’d like to recommend them, based on your age. The reason is that Callier had two distinct sets of audiences ― one which was exposed to his earlier soul and folk songs, and the other which heard him in collaboration with modern-day trip-hop, electronica and club artistes.

So if you’re over 35, the best bet would be to begin with ‘What Color Is Love’, a breathtakingly beautiful and charmingly-orchestrated love song. Check out the lines: “Is it wrong or is it right, is it black or is it white, what color is love?” You could follow that up with ‘Dancing Girl’, a nine-minute romantic masterpiece which travels in different tempi, beginning with the lines “I saw a dream last night, bright as a falling star.”

Then, you could get into the blues-rock beauty of ‘You Goin’ to Miss Your Candyman’, with its smooth guitars and keyboards.  Up next could be his version of the Beatles’ ‘And I Love Her’, followed by blues ballads ‘Blues for Billie Holiday’ and ‘Paris Blues’, and the Bob Dylan-styled protest classic ‘Fix the Blame’. These songs are good enough to get you hooked.

Now, if you’re under 35, the ideal recommendations would be ‘Live With Me’, with British trip-hop group Massive Attack, and ‘Lean On Me’ with Brit ‘folktronica’ singer Beth Orton. Other beginners would include the peppy ‘In a Heartbeat’ with Swedish electronic jazz duo Koop, and the wonderfully-written and moving ‘Brother to Brother’, with well-known 90s singer-songwriter Paul Weller. London club favourites 4Hero have used his voice on their mixes of ‘The Day of the Greys’ and the mood-enhancing ‘Love Theme from Spartacus’.

Having gone through the basics, whichever age you are, you can try some of his other gems. There are the funk-driven ‘Sign of the Times’, the beautifully-rendered ‘Butterfly’, the very old folk-blues  songs ‘Work Song’, ‘I’m a Drifter’ and ‘Be My Woman’, one of his late 90s songs ‘Time Peace’, the saxophone-driven ‘Nobody But Yourself To Blame’, the jazz piece ‘Tokyo Moon’, the club-friendly ‘Wings’ and all-time favourites like ‘Ordinary Joe’, ‘Jazz My Rhythm N’ Blues’, ‘Spin Spin Spin’, ‘Lazarus Man’ and ‘900 Miles’. Many, many more.

Callier had once rendered a jazz-soul song called ‘When The Music is Gone’, which talks of how life would be without music. The lyrics go: “What can we lean on when the music is gone, I don’t know… The song will be truth, peace, freedom and justice, the song will be love… What can we depend on when the music is gone, we don’t know, so we can’t let it die.”

What an apt way to sum up your own approach to life, Terry Callier. Hope your music spreads as far and wide as it deserves to.

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