Bay Area musician Tony Molina grafts gentle songwriting onto punk conventions with ‘Kill the Lights’

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Slumberland Records /Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

On Kill the Lights, brevity is a virtue.

An acclaimed debut album and a handful of EPs have demonstrated that Tony Molina is not afraid to play with succinctness. His latest effort is brief for a full-length LP — it’s 10 tracks in just 15 minutes. Yet Molina packs these songs with care. Each second is bursting with intention, and not a single strum feels accidental. The length of the record works to the artist’s benefit, teasing just enough to excite, but not enough to become repetitive.

Molina is a seasoned Bay Area musician, charting a wandering musical career through rock, metal and punk bands such as Ovens, Caged Animal and Dystrophy since 2002. His solo releases, though sonically in line with pop and folk, possess the formats of hardcore punk pressings. Each presents a sprint through a dozen or so tracks in as many minutes, boiled down to their emotional and energetic cores. He has released across several formats and labels — for Molina, it’s about putting his music into the world more than label politics or album deals.

Molina lays the elements of his craft out plainly: the infectious guitar lick, the bare-bones song structure and the plain, heartfelt lyric. He never uses a metaphor when the unadorned truth will suffice, and he speaks with both certainty and gravity. These basics combine under a strict eye for editing across the tracks of Kill the Lights. No sound lingers any longer than it is meant to.

On his previous release, the Confront the Truth EP, Molina flipped his usual fuzzed-out, riff-filled sound into gentler arrangements, heavily featuring acoustic guitar and Mellotron organ. He continues that evolution here, bringing in arrangements for a full band. On “Jasper’s Theme” — the longest track on the record at two minutes and one second — percussion and layered guitars explode Molina’s smartly written lines into a full folk-rock panorama. The fleshed-out sound owes equal parts to the Byrds and the Beatles, with an exquisite folky guitar solo culminating the song and multitracked harmonies hovering around the single verse. The brevity allows the first snare hit and the last rebellious strum to exist in the same memory, boosting the power of the track.

The progression from power-pop to a baroque sound fully matures on the track “Look Inside Your Mind/Losin’ Touch,” which features a complex, full arrangement that evokes the Beach Boys at their best. When Molina’s riffing guitar kicks in, the instrument is an echo of his yearning lyrics earlier in the song, seeking deeper understanding of a lover but ultimately falling short.

A more conventional pop song would have repeated the chorus in an attempt to cement the hook in the listeners mind, but the tracks on this record are confident in their statements. They refuse to repeat themselves.

While these are the standouts, as the most lushly orchestrated tunes on the record, the other tracks are stunning exercises in mood and instrumentation. Both “Wrong Town” and “Before You Go” rely almost entirely on 12-string guitar, showcasing Molina’s adept playing. The short track lengths leave little room for repetition and none for boredom. Instead, the brief tunes are structured into even smaller and more intricate sections, detailed like miniature models.

Each of Molina’s tracks plays out like a koan. The songs are contradictory — they’re complex and compact at the same time. The high fidelity of the recording and mixing lends itself well to this approach, rewarding repeat listening. Every minute of the album can be examined as an individual object, turned over, played again and again to mine it of every subtle detail. Though the quantity of this album is not large, Molina’s songwriting holds up. The songs are satisfying, and the album, though brief, makes the most of its stay.

Contact Patrick Tehaney at [email protected]. Tweet him at @patricktehaney.