‘Songs’ in inverted commas
Songs From San Mateo County by Tony Molina is a sparse and bizarre collection of unreleased material from the past ten years. The longest track on the record is 01:58 minutes, and with only 14 songs in total, there’s not much to hold on to. Molina has always been known for his sparing style of song writing, but this is the furthest he’s been from what is typically considered a ‘song.’ The music off this album is both hurried and slow, almost as if Molina has taken the best parts out of fully-formed tracks and arranged them one after the other. It is surely an interesting and inimitable approach to writing, but with experimentation comes both positives and negatives.
It’s always good to push boundaries and challenge the rules of song writing, especially in an industry that is so highly saturated with unoriginal, formulaic writing methods. Molina has produced an album that will certainly get his listeners to question how we define a ‘song,’ and more importantly, how we listen to it. This will obviously not be to everyone’s taste, but the point is that Molina has consciously challenged the norm, which in itself is an admirable endeavor, even if he hasn’t done so very well.
What Molina has managed to achieve is to make songs that still deliver everything we have come to expect from him. He has packed riffs and melodies into a very limited space, and because of this, people don’t lose out on the crucial qualities of his music. Molina has also achieved an interesting juxtaposition within this album. He has managed to fit low-fi vocals amongst his old-school rock riffs, his country-esque guitar harmonies and his pop-punk melodies. It’s a blend of so many different styles that it makes his sound undeniably unique, but also confusing. There’s no clear sense of style to this record, and it is all a bit frantic.
“Intro” sounds like “The Star Spangled Banner” played on the advanced mode of Guitar Hero. It’s strangely satiric, and maybe that’s what Molina wanted to convey. The 13-second run then jumps straight into a solemnly beautiful guitar ballad (‘#1 Riff’), which is so vastly different from the preceding track; it sets an unsettling precedent for the album to move on from. One expects to hear an attack of contrasting instruments and cagy melodies in the following songs, but Molina’s songs seem rather to become trivial.
“Not The Way To Be” and “Can’t Find My Way” make patriotic melodies and monotone vocals fit in a very strange way, and whether this combination is inspired or frustrating, it’s not enough of a solidifying style to save Molina from the confusion he has already begun. “I’m Not Down,” the longest song on the album, sounds as if Green Day tried to make a low-fi/rock&pop song. Once again, it’s so unexpected that it’s hard to make sense of, and whether or not that’s a good thing is up to the individual. The track does have some great guitar licks and because of its “extended length,” it allows for the space these melodies need to be heard.
Another curious quality of the record is the childish sound it employs. Many of the songs sound like rocked up nursery rhymes, with extremely predictable melodies. “Been Here Before” is a prime example of this, and once again, it’s hard to tell if Molina deliberately wanted his music to convey this quality, or if it was a step too far in his creative process.
By the ninth track, things start to get a bit boring. It’s just the same formula on repeat, with a slight variation, and so the novelty of his experimentation wears off very quickly. “Separate Ways” is almost an exact replica of “I’m Not Down,” and “Outro” seems a less sensitive rendition of ‘#1 Riff’.
The issue with this record is that there is no development across the tracks, no sense of a beginning or an end. Listening to the album in its entirety feels like a futile task because after 15 minutes it’s over, and has arrived at no revelation, nor left its listeners wanting to tune into a particular track again and again. There are more beauty, intimacy and intellect in a song that takes its time to move and expand, and Molina has lost the ability to instill this in his music by restricting himself to seconds rather than minutes. There’s plenty of potential in Songs From San Mateo County, but no execution.