The new album by Magnolia Electric Co., Josephine, doesn’t come out until next week (July 21, to be precise), but the band was in Chicago this past weekend for a couple of shows. What’s with all the bands touring lately before their records are available? The assumption seems to be that the fans are going to hear advance copies anyway… Or maybe the bands see it as a good way to introduce their new material. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, you can usually buy copies of the new CDs and LPS at the merch table at these concerts, even if the albums aren’t officially available yet. And buying music straight from the band at the merch table seems like the surest way of putting money right into the musicians’ pockets. The prices are usually reasonable, too — $10 or less is the regular going price for CDs. I did pick up a copy of Josephine Sunday night (July 12) at the Hideout, and so far, it seems like an excellent addition to the Magnolia Electric Co. repertoire.
It’s too bad Chicago can’t quite claim that MECo (to use the common abbreviation for this band) is a local group any longer. Singer-songwriter-frontman Jason Molina used to live in Andersonville, and I once had the pleasure of interviewing him during an afternoon visit to Simon’s Tap. Lately, he’s been living in London, but thankfully he does make it back here once in a while to play gigs.
Sunday night’s show followed a gig on the previous night at Schubas, which I missed. The Hideout performance was very, very solid, with Molina and his Hoosier bandmates ripping through a fair number of new songs as well as old classics like “Riding With the Ghost.” I may have said this before on this blog, but I think that’s really one of the great songs of the last decade. From what I could tell from eyeing the guitar frets during this performance, Molina & Co. are playing it in a somewhat lower key than the studio version, which I have blundered my way through on acoustic guitar a few times. Guitarist Jason Evans Groth’s leads and solos on the rendition Sunday night were absolutely blazing, which more than made up for the fact that the band plays this song live without the female vocals that you hear on the studio version.
Josephine is a being billed as a concept album, “an honest-to-God effort on the part of Magnolia Electric Co. to pay tribute to the life and spirit” of the band’s former bassist, Evan Farrell, who died in late 2007. But it’s not a straightforward record about Farrell. Rather, it is filled with references to the woman in the title. I’m still making sense of how the lyrics in this song cycle fit together, but it’s suffused with longing and a sense of loss, topics that Molina has sung about before. In concert, the words sounded sincere, and so did the singing sound of those guitars.
The show had two opening acts. Sally Timms played another set similar to the one I wrote about recently at Schubas, backed once again by the subtle and pretty sounds of Mar Caribe. (www.myspace.com/marcaribemusic)
The first act of the evening was a cool discovery: Elephant Micah, will calls itself “an imaginary band since 2000.” Based in Bloomington, Ind., this is another one of those indie bands that basically started out as the recording project of one individual — in this case, Joe O’Connell. For this Hideout show, however, Elephant Micah seemed more like an actual folk-rock ensemble, playing some very quiet and gentle songs that had the audience silently spellbound. I later bought the Elephant Micah CD Hindu Windmill at the merch table. It’s very lo-fi — the sort of recording that includes the sound of the tape-recorder being turned off at the end of songs. The intimacy of it reminds me of the first recordings by Great Lake Swimmers. I’m excited to hear what Elephant Micah records in the future with the full band.