Americana, No Depression, Whatever

There's always been an unflinching quality to Jay Farrar's songs, a refusal to romanticize the facts into an ego-sparing balm or a conscience- calming salve. Not that he isn't a romantic; like many other great lyricists, he attempts to transcend in song the weight of the everyday. The dignity of the human spirit and the search for Hemingway's clean well-lighted place seems to root Farrar's songs. And the past, no matter how glorified, is of little use to him.

For five or six years, the music world -- record labels, radio, the press, and lots of dedicated fans -- have championed a nebulous "Americana" genre, also known as No Depression music. The term comes from the title of the debut CD from Farrar's much-heralded previous band Uncle Tupelo (who in turn borrowed the title from country's celebrated Carter Family). No Depression is revered by Americana fans as a kind of holy grail of the modern roots-based style. It's also the title of a fanzine that covers Americana bands, all the while keeping an eye on the past glory of the superlative Uncle Tupelo.

For Son Volt's Jay Farrar, a reluctant forebear of today's No Depression bands, the legacy is burdensome. "I don't really feel a connection to it that much," he says quietly, "mostly because I don't really pay attention to the magazine. Oftentimes I get fairly incredulous responses when I say I haven't seen the latest No Depression band. I'm ambivalent about it, really. I'm sure it has been good for a lot of bands involved in it. There's a lot of good people involved in the magazine itself, but it creates uneasiness for me to look at some of the columns titled after Uncle Tupelo songs. I just can't get past that."

"Hallowed gone heydays" are empty solace for Farrar. The uneasiness is genuine. In fact, he is very uncomfortable talking about his music; he'd much rather you listen to it and take what you will. Since first coming to the public's attention with Uncle Tupelo in 1990, he has been interested only in the songs; the trappings -- or traps -- of the music business are to be avoided whenever possible, and endured (interviews included) only when necessary. Which is understandable; he says more in the lyrics of three verses than most musicians say in an entire interview.

With Son Volt -- including original Uncle Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn and brothers Jim (bass) and Dave (lots of stringed instruments) Boquist -- which Farrar put together in 1994 after leaving Uncle Tupelo, he has continued his seemingly unwavering concentration on crafting songs in the vein of bands like the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Band, and one of his obvious influences, Neil Young. After three albums for Warner Bros., Son Volt has emerged as the modern-day equivalent of those acts, with perhaps a toe or two still dragging alongside an oil stain of garage rock. The band's debut, Trace, was one of 1995's best albums (the single "Drown" received significant airplay); the followup Straightaways was solid, though it suffered from a stifling, languorous country vibe. Wide Swing Tremolo, the band's latest, both expands Son Volt's sound and brings back the driving rock base that made their debut so impressive.

That rock foundation is evident in the album opener "Straightface," balancing on a big guitar riff and a fuzz-box effect for Farrar's voice (a first for the band). The slippery "Medicine Hat" moves as well, evoking the Byrds and the Rolling Stones, and "Flow" breezes along with drummer Heidorn's playful timekeeping and a catchy guitar line. The midtempo material avoids static with brain-imbedding melodies: "Driving the View," a literal cruise through town, soaks up the passing street life and shows off the lithe harmonies of Farrar and Jim Boquist. The stellar album closer, "Blind Hope," is a shuffling Seventies country rock groove in which the soberly optimistic Farrar sings "Casting it out, reeling it in/Living on blind hope again." The eerie "Dead Man's Clothes" offers new Son Volt sounds -- a plunking electrified dulcimer resonates throughout -- and more simply stated verities from Farrar ("Who do you answer to?/No one there, just pride").

The sonic texture of Wide Swing Tremolo (the title is nicked from a 1962 Gibson amplifier advertisement Farrar came across) is loose and full and elastic. Farrar's usually stoic voice sounds a little less restrained than on previous work, much of which can be attributed to the way the album was recorded. The band chose not to work with producer Brian Paulson, who helmed Son Volt's previous discs (as well as Uncle Tupelo's Anodyne). Instead, former Sugar bassist David Barbe, who played on and engineered Tupelo's mostly acoustic classic March 16-20, 1992, served as engineer for the band's self-producing duties. Also, Wide Swing was recorded in a self-made studio the band put together near Farrar's hometown of Belleville, Illinois.

"In the past," says Farrar, "we didn't really spend enough time in the studio to actually write too much. I had the opportunity to pick up a dulcimer, an electric piano, and create songs based on melodies that I picked around, which was kind of different for me. It is something that I always wanted to do -- record in a hometown environment. It's very important, I think, not having to work to the dictates of the clock. But also it's just a more familiar environment overall when you're at home. It's more of like a job scenario, I guess. You're sort of clocking in as opposed to traveling."

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