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That’s Jason Molina, formerly the voice between sparse alt-country troupe Songs: Ohia and later, the more classic rock-themed Magnolia Electric Co. And that’s Will Johnson, lynchpin of Denton, Texas’ Centro-Matic and a current member of contemporary touring folk supergroup Monsters of Folk (also featuring Jim James, Conor Oberst and M. Ward).
Both long-running contemporaries on the rootsier end of America’s independent rock underground, Molina & Johnson is not necessarily an album you would have anticipated taking place – after all, it’s not immediately clear what one grizzle-voiced folk hand can bring to another. But if the division of labour here threatens to sound like two men wrestling over the steering wheel, the result is certainly more complimentary than complicated; 14 songs that, while not game-changing by any means, at least display a clear shared vision.
Fans of Molina’s sparser, less-filled-out work will probably warm immediately to this collaboration. Often pared down to guitar, piano and circling voices, it’s reminiscent of the likes of 2000’s Songs: Ohia album Ghost Tropic, albeit with a slightly lighter tone (not difficult – much of Songs’ work was black as pitch). Another antecedent is the dusty old-time Americana of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music – All Gone, All Gone in particular sounds exhumed from some cobwebbed cellar, all wobbly voices, spindly guitar and Great Depression vibes.
This low-key spirit sometimes weighs the record down. There are snatches of fascinating narrative on Johnson’s In the Avalon/Little Killer, but the storytelling feels slight, and while a bit of quiet is something less astute musicians neglect, you could drive a pick-up truck through some of these silences. But Molina’s voice, in particular, has a cold soul that’s always listenable, and if this team effort doesn’t quite thrill throughout, it’s the bare bones of a partnership that’s well-deserving of a second outing. --Louis Pattison