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."
Dave Boquist agrees that the relaxed atmosphere of their own studio helped shape the sound of the new album. "Our only restriction was pretty much getting some sleep," he laughs. "Well, we did have a couple of other restrictions. There was a wood shop next door and we couldn't come in too early; we had to wait until those guys left. There was a saw that was humming at a certain frequency that almost fit one of the songs."
When Farrar writes, he brings in basic ideas he records on his home four-track and allows the band to flesh them out. That process too changed a little on this new disc.
"It's always been that we all threw out ideas and stuff," explains Boquist, "but what may be a little different is that Jay has loosened up on this record as far as actually putting these things on that we were messing around with in the studio.
"I would say the factor that's probably changed the most is Mike's drumming," Boquist continues. "He's using more tom fills, more percussion. If the sound has changed and is going in any certain direction, it's probably just more solid rhythmically. Part of the signature sound of Uncle Tupelo was stops and starts, and Mike had to follow Jay or Jeff [Tweedy, now of Wilco] back then, and a lot of that carried over into Trace. I think now he's more of a driver's-seat kind of drummer. We're all steered rhythmically by him."
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This is the third record the foursome has made, and naturally they have learned to read each other's musical instincts a little more clearly. Though Farrar, according to Boquist, is as reticent about musical direction as he is about answering interview questions. "I never worked with somebody who says yes or no by silence or a nod of the head. It's something that I had to get used to. Initially it was bothersome, but you just have to get a feel for the way people operate. I've learned that there's sort of a grace to that lack of communication."
Grace is the right word: it pervades Son Volt's music, whether they're rocking out or plodding somberly through a haunting murder ballad like "Carry Me Down," which adds another layer to the evolving Son Volt style. What sounds like a creepy flute winding its way through the song is only kind of a flute. "It's a Chamberlin," Farrar explains, "which has pre-recorded real sounds of various instruments like a cello, or flute. It's a keyboard instrument. I used the flute setting," he chuckles. "It's kind of a sample. It plays real tape-recorded sounds." An organic sample, the only type one would expect to hear on a Jay Farrar record.
Before Son Volt bowed with Trace in 1995, Farrar, who was then living in New Orleans, frequently made the lengthy drive north to Minneapolis (home of Paulson and the Boquists) to rehearse and record with the band, filling the long stretches of highway with truck-driving music he found on the radio. The first cut on Son Volt's debut is "Windfall," a lilting song of carefree hope; Farrar sings the line "Switching over to AM, searching for a truer sound." To many disappointed fans of the then-recently disbanded Uncle Tupelo, that line held more meaning about Farrar's musical quest than it did to the songwriter himself. But at the time, he confessed to that "truer sound" being an undefined place he strives for as a musician. Despite the strides Son Volt makes on Wide Swing Tremolo, that pursuit remains elusive to the songwriter.
"I think we'll always be searching, I guess," Farrar says. "Inspiration's kind of a transient thing. What seems like a sound now may not be appealing to us years from now. Like, we probably won't want to play any truck-driving songs.