Album Review: Songs: Ohia - Love & Work (The Lioness Sessions)

I wind up with a copy of The Lioness on vinyl—a repress of mostly unknown origin according to its listing on Discogs—because two days after the death of Jason Molina was made public, the Secretly Canadian online store was besieged with orders, and they were sold out of the CD of Songs: Ohia’s seminal Didn’t it Rain?

This was before Molina’s catalog was repressed and reissued at a fever pitch, and the order I had placed—a bit of a knee jerk reaction, truthfully, since I had been content for six months listening to illegally downloaded mp3s on my computer—the order itself took nearly a month to process because the store was so backed up—so along with the other part of my order, Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Molina’s incredibly bleak, and last album released under his own name, I picked The Lioness out of consolation, knowing very little, at that point, about where it stood in his canon.

I stop short of saying I was a bandwagon jumper when it came to Jason Molina—a friend of mine had told me about him, about Songs: Ohia, and about the Magnolia Electric Company, when we were in college, but it took until the fall of 2012 for me to discover the man, and his music, on my own.

Since his passing over five years ago, the vault of material he recorded while attempting to get sober throughout 2010 to 2012 has remained unopened; the recordings, probably crude and would border on exploitive if released, are mentioned briefly in Molina’s biography, Riding With The Ghost. Instead, his label has opted to occasionally reissue classic, or important albums from his brief but prolific career, accompanied by additional material: the tenth anniversary of the Magnolia Electric Company album, in 2013, was met with a remaster of the album and a collection of demo recordings; the following year, Didn’t it Rain? was given similar treatment.

Released at the beginning of the year 2000—and one of two albums Molina would release that year (the other being the fragmented, marginally experimental Ghost Tropic), Secretly Canadian has now given The Lioness the deluxe reissue treatment, expanding the album’s original nine songs out to 20 with the inclusion of seven additional tracks recording during the album’s sessions in Scotland, as well as four more songs recorded in London onto a four-track.

In the press release regarding The Lioness reissue—titled Love & Work: The Lioness Sessions, it’s called ‘the first—and likely the best—love songs album of the new millennium.’ Then, later, a ‘head over heels, make out album.’ And yes, there are sweet, even touching sentiments throughout the original album’s nine songs—but, please, look closer if you are able, for it’s also a volatile, dangerous kind of love—something that should really be apparent when you listen to Molina’s lyrics, as well as when you hear the batch of additional songs recorded during the same time period.

Playing The Lioness shortly after I had received it, I was less concerned with the lyrical content, and more with the raw, tumbledown instrumentation and production, so the first time I noticed just how dangerous, and even desperate, the songs on The Lioness could be was the following year, when listening to the lengthy Journey On singles collection—a special ‘Record Store Day’ release in 2014.

Barely recognizable in this form, a version of “The Lioness” is included among that collection, pulled from a 7” released in 2001; dubbed the “Didn’t it Rain? Translation” of the song, it’s a sparse and slow re-arrangement, finding Molina singing in such a way that puts much more emphasis on the song’s obsessive, uncomfortable lyrics:

It is for me the eventual truth
Of that look, of the lioness, to her man across the Nile…
Want to feel my heart break, if it must break, in your jaws
Want you to lick my blood off your paws…
Whether you save me—whether you savage me
Want my last look to be the moon in your eyes

Then, of course, there is the iconic mantra of a refrain--

If you can’t get here fast enough, I will swim to you.


Jason Molina would have you believe, as he tells you on the album’s other iconic mantra—on the cavernous slow dance “Being in Love,” that the heart is a risky fuel to burn.

He, of course, is correct.

The Lioness as an album, more or less, is a love letter to the woman who he would later marry, Darcie Schoenman—the two began dating in 1999, and he began writing about her, and their love, in the songs found on the Songs: Ohia record released that year, Axxess & Ace, a record that still saw Molina working within the confines, musically speaking, of what could be referred to as ‘idiosyncratic folk.’

If Axxess & Ace is a record about the beginning of a new relationship, The Lioness is then about the complexities as that relationship begins to grow—it’s also steeped in just how obsessive Molina, as a partner, could be. Musically, you can hear taking those first small steps away from the original, very rough Songs: Ohia sound, and moving toward something else—just on the cusp of the haunted, frail acoustics of Didn’t it Rain?, and still quite a long way from the electrified twang found in his final working years, The Lioness, as well as Ghost Tropic, are both records that are, at times, very skeletal in some ways, but as a point of contrast, they cast long, dense, and complicated shadows.

Forsaking the Midwest that Songs: Ohia had become synonymous with during the band’s early days, Molina recorded The Lioness at Chem 19 Studios in Scotland with members of the legendary Scottish outfit Arab Strap performing alongside him, helping shape this newer, more adventurous (for him, at the time) sound. The Lioness moves, at times, like a slow codeine drip; other times, like many of Molina’s earliest songs, it can be explosive and unhinged.

Sometimes it’s both of those things at once.

In my copy of The Lioness, I was given a download coupon that I had never redeemed (until now, as a point of reference) so I’ve always just taken the album—mostly it’s sonic palate—at what was presented to me when the needle hit the grooves of the vinyl—an unremarkable pressing; it’s neither the worst thing I’ve ever heard come from my turntable, nor is it something that just desperately needed to be pressed onto vinyl in order to be heard the right way.

A more detailed listen, through headphones, reveals a very delicately layered album—the density created in the studio is there, yes, but the songs are so deliberately paced that, at times, it seems like the gentle hiss in the background and the brief silences and spaces in between things are intentional; like they are another instrument included in the song.

Because I already have this consolatory copy of The Lioness on vinyl, because it’s not, like my favorite Jason Molina record, because I don’t need to own everything that is ever released, and because I am really trying to curb my enthusiasm when it comes to buying records because my wife has put us on a budget or something, I opted not to buy the kind of pricey and now out of stock double LP on translucent purple vinyl, complete with ephemera like replicated letters and photos, along with a booklet including essays from Molina’s friends and family.

In some remasters and reissues, a lot is changed with an album’s sound—you can hear a greater expanse in the dynamics that wasn’t there the first time around; other times, when something is remastered, it just means someone went back in and made everything a little bit louder. Since I am only working with the mp3s of Love & Work, I can’t comment on how things sound on the vinyl edition, though I will say that there is a surprising richness and warmth found on such an, at times, desolate and lonely sounding record—a richness and warm that, much to my surprise, would actually lend itself well to a decent vinyl pressing.

The original nine songs of The Lioness, at least digitally speaking, in this reissue, remain relatively untouched—or, at least, if they have been altered from their original mix, it’s only very slightly in an effort to make things a little sharper, or clearer sounding. The slight hiss from the recording equipment is still present, creating a small bed of white noise underneath all of the instrumentation.

The thing with The Lioness from start to finish is that it is a complete product of time and place—yes, Molina was writing ‘love songs’ prior to this album, but the album’s sound is so insular—shaped by the group of collaborators he was working with in Scotland, specifically the punchy pop of the snare drum and real lack of any emphasized bass drum, as well as the clean sounding, yet distended electric guitar tone that he uses as he strums out all these dark, minor chords on nearly every song.

With that being said, the additional seven tracks from the second LP on Love & Work are certainly cut from the same cloth. In the Pitchfork review of this collection, writer Sam Sodomsky (who I have taken issue with sometimes in the past) calls Molina a ‘sharp self-editor,’ and I both agree, and disagree.

I agree because Molina whittled down a possible 16 songs to just nine, and was able to pick out the strongest of his time in Scotland. I disagree because, only a handful of years later, Molina would release a four LP set under his Magnolia Electric Company moniker—then also compile a ‘best of’ from those four albums, issued as Fading Trails.

But, at that point, Molina was in the grips of his debilitating battle with alcoholism, so maybe he wasn’t as ‘sharp’ of a self-editor as he was in the year 2000; the additional Lioness sessions tracks on this collection are, as a whole, certainly not as strong as their counterparts; in some cases, they feel like unfinished sketches—maybe they were never even in the running to be included on the album. “Never Fae It,” and “On My Way Home” are both a little more than ‘unfinished,’ however, they lack a sense of thoughtful development.

Other times, the additional tracks feel very similar to songs that made it onto the proper album—the mercifully short “It Gets Harder Over Time” sounds an awful lot like “Nervous Bride,” and the fact that there are, like, really no lyrics to speak of, leads one to believe it was an improvised experiment in the studio that was never revised as sessions continued.

The centerpiece to these unreleased songs is the slow simmering “I Promise Not To Quit,” which, thematically speaking, shares a number of things with both “The Lioness” and “Being in Love,” showing the kind of possessive feelings Molina harbored in his relationship:

Every day since we met
I have made a list of what I have and what I did not get
Without working hard for it…
You are the one thing on that list
I could never earn…
And I promise not to quit…
Every day since we met
I have made a second list of what I have and what I’ll never get
You are the one thing on that list I’ll never get
But if I do get it…
I will work to make it work

In the early 2000s, I suppose this kind of sentiment could be seen as sweet, but in a ‘woke’ kind of society, 18 years later, referring to a woman as a ‘thing’ on a list comes off as tone deaf.

In turn, though, musically, “I Promise Not to Quit” is one of the most compelling among the crop of unreleased material—specifically because of these huge, surprising moments that come tumbling in during what amounts to the song’s refrain—structured around blasts from an organ and quick guitar strums—resolving when the verses to the song start again.

I stop short of saying that the additional, four-track recorded songs included on this second album are inessential, but are a pretty stark break in character, sonically speaking, therefore cause a very sudden shift in this collection’s tone—making them, more or less, for the Molina completist only.

There’s not much remastering one can do to something committed to audio recorded on a four-track machine, so all of the medium’s imperfections, as well as the very raw nature of the original recording, are very present. Molina, himself, sounds incredibly young—as he also does during the additional Lioness material.

Despite the very tacked on nature of this portion of Love & Work, “Raw” features some pretty impressive distortion and noise floating around in the background of the song, and “Already Through” is, overall, tender and spectral enough to fit in with Molina’s Didn’t it Rain?-era material.


The real question, with any posthumous effort pulled together from unreleased material, is, did the artist in question want you to hear these songs?

There is a reason that these seven tracks were left off of The Lioness proper, and there’s a reason that the four songs recorded in London were also left unreleased or were not further developed into the Molina canon. Unearthing this material now, 18 years after the album’s original release, and over five years after Molina’s death, doesn’t do damage to his legacy—I can see Secretly Canadian issuing this as not so much a ‘cash grab’ but as an attempt to help fill in Molina’s mythology—but is that something that needs filling in?

The same way I wonder what Kurt Cobain would think of Nirvana t-shirts and baseball caps being sold in the men’s department of Target, I wonder what Jason Molina would think of canvas tote bags with the phrase The Heart is A Risky Fuel To Burn being screen printed on one side of it—a special add on in the Secretly Canadian online store that was available for a limited time when pre-orders for Love & Work were first announced.

Jason Molina would have you believe that the heart is a risky fuel to burn. He’s right of course—it is something that I have learned in time, over and over again, but is this a phrase that we want adorning what we put our groceries in, or is it something we keep to ourselves, thinking about it in a private, reflective moment?

I’ve spent 2,400 words overthinking The Lioness and this Love & Work collection—if you do that, you find that it’s a set of songs that kind of leaves you with a lot of questions and no easy answers. Is this kind of dangerous, obsessive love a ‘good’ kind of love—is it a love that a young person would eventually mature out of? Or is it a love that inevitably self destructs, and takes the people involved down with it?

The Lioness, as an album, is by no means my favorite Molina album released under any name, but I can see why some would say it has importance in his body of work. It’s a jarring, capricious set of songs, and accompanied along side this supplemental material, it really does capture not just a moment in time, but a very specific portion of Molina’s life, in his mid-20s, navigating the minor successes he was having within independent music, and falling dangerously in love.

It is an album full of heart. And the heart is a risky fuel to burn.

Love & Work is out now as a digital download, via Secretly Canadian. Copies of the 2xLP are already up on Discogs if you are interested. Copies of the original vinyl pressings can be found here as well.