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The Haul: Rex / Songs: Ohia Split Single

Rex and Songs: Ohia split single

I stopped writing about every record I buy—okay, stopped attempting to write about every record I buy—a few years ago. Reasons abound: I was buying too many records to keep up; an OCD trigger in my brain wanted me to post them in chronological purchase order, even though I wrote about them semi-randomly; I figured few people cared to read about dusty Wire-related records or obscure ’90s math-rock singles; I wanted to spend time writing about more recent releases from artists needing support right now. In short, I did what I’m best at—come up with reasons not to do something.

In hindsight, the true value of this practice was not allowing myself to pick my spots, which, as proven by my incredibly sporadic writing, is something I can do to the extreme. Covering a broader range of reactions than “Hey, this album is fantastic, here’s why” engaged me—I could go off on tangents more freely, and even occasionally make a point, whether it was about that particular record or not.

To that end, my desire to write about this Rex / Songs: Ohia split single (a February pick-up from Chicago’s Reckless Records) isn’t based in a need to comment on these two songs. I can do that, too: Rex’s “Untitled” was the final breath of the slow-core/alt-country act, with only singer/guitarist Curtis Harvey remaining from the group’s usual line-up. He’s backed here by mercenary violinist Joan Wasser (Dambuilders, Mind Science of the Mind, Joan as Policewoman, Those Bastard Souls, etc.) and Josh Mattews. It’s a pleasant, if not particularly memorable coda to the three LPs, one EP, and two singles that preceded it. I’d rather put on the gut-wrenching “Nothing Is Most Honorable Than You” from their self-titled debut or anything from their 1996 sophomore LP C, but my completist urges are satiated by hearing their last song. The flip features an alternate version of “How to Be Perfect Men” from Songs: Ohia’s 1999 LP Axxess & Ace, a more ragged rendition that likely holds the same completist appeal to Jason Molina fans as “Untitled” does to Rex fans.

The Songs: Ohia side of this single exemplifies a statement I’ve found myself saying a lot lately: “I never got into them.” I don’t use that phrase dismissively; I pick my spots as a listener, too, and sometimes I miss the natural opening for a record to enter my collection. I can remember two distinct opportunities in this instance: first, Epitonic provided “Captain Badass” and “Lioness” back when free MP3s were a rare commodity; second, I vaguely recall seeing Magnolia Electric Company at the Intonation Festival (the precursor to the Pitchfork Music Festival) in 2005. Neither instance prompted further exploration.

It’s plausible that I would have gotten into Songs: Ohia from “How to Be Perfect Men (Version)” alone, provided that I didn’t file the vinyl into the deep recesses of one of my shoeboxes-turned-singles-bins after a few spins. But news of Jason Molina’s recent passing placed an uncomfortable urgency on finally hearing his work. Reading the devastated reactions of Molina’s fans and friends prioritized Songs: Ohia and the Magnolia Electric Company above other acts in my listening pile. I can understand the impulse to a certain extent, since these eulogies crystallized how much his work meant to my peers, but there’s something off-putting about wanting to catch up with an artist because they’re no longer with us. That’s the impetus for me finally checking a band out? It doesn’t feel right to use a collective mourning period to determine the best entry points for an artist’s catalog.

But that’s precisely what I did. When friends posted lists of their favorite Molina records, I picked Axxess & Ace, The Lioness, and Magnolia Electric Company as gateways. It didn’t shock me that these albums resonated with me; I may not have gotten into Songs: Ohia in the previous fifteen years, but I certainly knifed through the back catalogs of stylistic kin Will Oldham and Bill Callahan during that time. I immediately felt the presence of Arab Strap members on The Lioness. If I’d found an irritating element, at least I could say “This is why it took me so long to get into these records,” but nothing stuck out. (Not that now would be the best time to say, “And you know what I found out? These records are completely overrated.”) Instead, I’m left wondering why I hadn’t done this earlier.

The best way to extract myself from this hypothetical feedback loop is to imagine the tables turning on this single. What if I’d picked it up as a Jason Molina completist with only a vague familiarity with Rex? (No offense to Rex, but I suspect that’s a more common scenario.) Without the hard stop of Molina’s death weighing on me, I would not feel the same urgency to catch up with Curtis Harvey’s music. Rex would just be another entry in the Magnet-approved, Sebastian-ignored list of 1990s indie rock.

The core truth of “I never got into them” is that “them” contains multitudes. If I made a top ten list of my most glaring musical oversights, unintentional or not, Songs: Ohia wouldn’t have made the honorable mentions. I’m equally amazed and skeptical when someone seems to have heard everything, since I don’t understand how anyone would have the time and energy for that gargantuan task. There have always been more bands, there are always more bands, there will always be more bands. All it takes is a look at Spin’s recent top 100 alternative records of the 1960s to confirm my massive blind spots. I feel guilty about not hearing Jason Molina’s music earlier, but if there’s any era of music I’m arguably too familiar with, it’s turn of the millennium independent rock. I’ll catch up on Songs: Ohia after the fact, with my listening colored by Molina’s health troubles and death, but other lacunae will only grow larger in the meantime. If I can ever hope to make significant progress, I’m going to have to pick more spots.