Indie rock vets struggle to pump life into their off-the-cuff collaboration
Between them, Will Johnson (Centro-Matic, South San Gabriel) and Jason Molina (Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co.) have spent the last 15 years filling in the empty spaces on the continuum stretching between Neil Young and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, maintaining a prolific pace that both insures a sprawling catalog and indicates a general hesitance to spend too much time dwelling on any one project. That makes them a suitable pair, and Johnson & Molina—the result of a laidback 10-day recording session in Johnson’s home studio in Denton, Texas—sounds pretty much as you’d expect, given the relatively short incubation time and reportedly relaxed pace.
That workshop approach lends the songs a certain urgent atmosphere, framing them with a stark immediacy that makes their lesser qualities appear more compelling than they would be otherwise. But just as often, the 14 skeletal, slightly undercooked songs sound as much like demos as they do finished products, resulting in an album that retains the feel of two master songwriters throwing ideas around in the studio while the tapes roll, piecing together the most serviceable parts without worrying very much about how they all fit together.
Their styles do fit together well enough, their voices harmonizing nicely and Molina’s haunted aggression adding definition to Johnson’s occasionally meandering melodies. But the album doesn’t necessarily suffer from lack of polish as much as a paucity of memorable ideas, as track after track drifts by with few distinguishing features to identify them from each, becoming a plaintive blur of funereal piano chords, strummed acoustic guitars and understated melodies that meander off murmuring, half-finished and half-awake.
The exceptions stand out all the more clearly against the threadbare backdrop, from Molina’s aching hymn-like balladry of “The Lily and the Brakeman” to Johnson’s singing saw blues dirge “All Gone, All Gone.” But very few tracks manage to claw their way out of the monochromatic haze of too similar textures, tempos, and sentiments, leading one to believe that Johnson and Molina are too perfectly paired to push each other in any new directions.