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Tony Molina Previews ‘Songs From San Mateo’

In Music
LESS IS MORE: Tony Molina’s new rarities collection is short and sweet.

LESS IS MORE: Tony Molina’s new rarities collection is short and sweet.

To understand the music of Tony Molina, we should first talk about bonsai.

Bonsai, as an art, proceeds through cuts. The goal: to take something natural (a tree), and trim it down until all that remains is the truth. Unlike miniature dog breeds, bonsai trees are not genetically small. Any seed could grow a bonsai. To get there, it takes an artistic eye, and more than a few snips of the shears.

For the better part of a decade now, Peninsula musician Tony Molina has been crafting what could conceivably be called bonsai rock. Like bonsai, Molina’s art proceeds through cuts. A Molina song might have the catchiest melody you’ve heard in years and end in less than a minute. Choruses stick out like a lone branch hanging in the wind, never to repeat. While certain melodic phrases might sound like something you’ve heard before (Weezer, Dinosaur Jr.), the end result is always strikingly its own.

This week, Molina releases Songs From San Mateo via Oakland label Smoking Room. It is his first collection of B-sides. In making these songs public, Molina has pulled the leaves back a bit, revealing a further part of his pruning process—not just what parts of songs to cut, but what songs themselves were left off of albums like Dissed and Dismissed (2013) and Kill the Lights (2018).

In classic Molina style, Songs From San Mateo is brief. Its 14 tracks barely take up 15 minutes. The longest song, “I’m Not Down” (a perfect example of the “Weezer + Dinosaur Jr.” format) doesn’t even crack two minutes. The shortest (“Intro”) is 14 seconds. Fourth track “Can’t Find My Way,” an immediate highlight, is a 48-second tour through Molina’s entire discography. Tracing a melody similar to last year’s “Jasper’s Theme,” “Can’t Find My Way” ditches the Dylan-esque keyboards and acoustics for the thick fuzz of power chords, exploding at its end into a guitar solo that’s something like Kirk Hammett channeling Andres Segovia. It sort of sounds like a bunch of Tony Molina songs pasted together and then chopped in half. But, then again, so does every Tony Molina song.

“Can’t Find My Way” is followed by “Don’t See the Point,” which similarly caps two verses with a guitar solo, then pulls the plug. Compared to those two songs, “I’m Not Down” is like a rock opera. It even has a full on intro-verse-chorus-bridge structure. Still, a full fourth of the song is dedicated to Molina’s fretwork, as a bridge carries it from the last chorus to another explosive guitar solo.

One of the few clear Kill the Lights outtakes to appear on Songs From San Mateo is “Word Around Town.” With its acoustics and humming organ, it could have easily fit beside the autumnal ennui of songs like “Wrong Town,” or “Give He Take You.” Likewise for the acoustic “Don’t See Me Now,” with its bonsai take on Simon and Garfunkel. The decision to cut these two is especially curious considering Kill the Lights’ 14-minute runtime. Would two more minutes have hurt? Obviously, Molina thought as much, and who are we to say that he was wrong? His trees have grown nicely.

As with every Molina record, the secret star is the production work of Jack Shirley. Over the past decade, the monk-like Shirley has established himself as the Bay Area’s Steve Albini, capturing bands as they sound without getting in the way. Acoustics are lush, pick strokes blend with the natural resonance of the wood, and when things get loud, they get loud.

For those who miss the early Tony—the fuzz-and-feedback days—back when everything sounded kinda like “Only in Dreams,” Songs From San Mateo has what you’re looking for. And along the way, you get a glimpse into an artist’s method—the limbs and leaves which, once cut, reveal the truth.

Songs From San Mateo
Tony Molina
Out Jul 19

 

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