Inertia, 2009

Jason Molina has been around a while, and he sounds like it. Though Josephine is only Magnolia Electric Co.’s third proper album, it marks the latest step in a musical journey begun even before the founding of Songs: Ohia, Magnolia’s predecessor. I won’t pretend to be an expert: my knowledge of Molina’s back catalogue consists of Wikipedia research and Hype Machine MP3 scrounging. Josephine has the unmistakable mark of a band that’s done this before and is continuing for its own satisfaction and fulfillment. And kudos to them for that, but for the rest of us, there’s just not enough here to warrant coming back for more.

“O! Grace” opens with twinkling, tinny pop piano, and for a moment it seems like the lead-in to a ’90s pop ballad. But then Molina’s voice, a nasal country drawl, comes in, and the feeling is something akin to failing to complete a sneeze: it’s an uncomfortable auditory shell shock. Misleading beginnings aside, though, it’s a fine opener, a classic-sounding ballad complete with earnestly-repeated one liners (“I’ve been as lonesome as the world’s first ghost”) and an organ-propelled, vaguely hopeful yet despairing chorus (“O Grace, if you stop believing /That don’t mean that it just goes away/It’s a long way between horizons/And it gets farther every day). The song is good, but not exceptional, an assessment that could also be fairly applied to the album’s next forty-three minutes.

Musically, Josephine feels confined. The album is stoically mid-tempo, and no song betrays this classification by any great margin. Even one upbeat rocker would have done a lot to quell the monotony. The alt-country sound — blue collar Southern rock without Top 40 bombast — works for a while, but the little variance it gets (an acoustic guitar here, a new organ tone there) just isn’t enough to keep things interesting. It’s not that every song sounds the same; it’s just that, listening to the album, I feel like I’m staying in the same place. Whatever the sonic alterations, Josephine feels uncomfortably stagnant.

That isn’t to say there aren’t gems. Though a midtempo crooner like the rest of them, the title track is breezy and nostalgic in all the right ways, and there’s something smile-inducing about Molina’s smug half-regret: “Oh, what a fool I’ve been”. “Whip-poor-will” sounds like a song you’d hear around the fire at a neighboring campsite, in a good way. It’s a wise, heartfelt sing-a-long, and the slide guitar is a nice touch. “Knoxville Girl” offers a darker take on the alt-country sound, and its quavering, atmospheric guitar is the highlight of the album’s latter half, while the song’s slow crawl through the shadows proves just how powerful a subtle tempo change can be.

Josephine see-saws between good and so-so: there’s little to cringe at, but little that inspires. It seems to me Molina played it safe. Maybe that’s not what he intended. But maybe it’s what he wanted: a record that can accept that few will adore it, because it knows that even fewer will despise it.