Josephine marks an even dozen recordings on the Secretly Canadian label for bands fronted by Jason Molina, a prolific rust-belt songwriter who recorded as Songs: Ohia from 1997 to 2003 before forming his current band. Magnolia Electric Company's latest effort channels Molina's melancholic vision, creating a Son Volt meets Neil Young vibe that draws on the wellspring of 70s folk-rock and contemporary Americana.
Simultaneously sparse and lush, Josephine employs a minimalist approach that still allows for sonic richness; within the space, all the players get a chance to speak. Michael Kapinus' keyboard elegantly anchors several cuts, including the reverent "O! Grace." The simply strummed-six string and lonesome dobro in "Whip-poor-will" create a startling intimacy that effectively match the tune's mournful lyrics. And the near-a cappella opening of "Hope Dies Last" resonates with a deep, unvarnished ache.
One would be hard-pressed to call this a rock album, yet the band employs the power of electric guitar effectively. The critical notion here is restraint; the shimmery string-work of "The Handing Down" provides just enough voltage to drive home the emotion of Magnolia Electric Company's most critical instrument--Jason Molina's hauntingly transcendent pipes.
Molina's voice is far from classically beautiful; it's been rightfully compared to those of unsecretly Canadian artists Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. Closer to the former than the latter, it quavers uncertainly into the higher end of the register, yet it's this uncertainty that is the vocals' very strength, rendering a stark vulnerability that's impossible to ignore. Simply put, Josephine is a work of impeccable craftsmanship, and a beauty worth exploring.