Jay Farrar: A Man and His Sound | Bleader

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Jay Farrar: A Man and His Sound

Posted By on 09.24.09 at 07:36 PM

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Son Volt
  • Son Volt
Not long after Son Volt released its third album, 1998’s Wide Swing Tremolo (Warner Brothers), front man Jay Farrar announced that he was putting the band on ice: as he would later explain in the liner notes of A Retrospective: 1995-2000 (Rhino), “I wanted to devote more time to my family, and the free-range aspect of doing solo recording and performing was something I wanted to try.”

He did go on to make a couple of solo records as well as collaborate with Anders Parker under the name Gob Iron, but those projects sounded so much like Son Volt that it’d be fruitless to try to draw boundaries between them.

Farrar excels at one basic sound: mid-tempo roots rock inspired by Neil Young, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and once in a while the Rolling Stones. That’s not a particularly unique triumvirate of sources, but the appealing blurriness of his twangy, melancholy vocals—as if he were working on a big plug of chaw—and his skill at reshaping familiar country-rock melodies has been reliably effective within those narrow confines. He relaunched Son Volt in 2005 with an all-new lineup, but that incarnation didn’t distinguish itself markedly from the original group or from his solo work.

This summer the band released American Central Dust (Rounder), its third album since its reboot, and it’s unsurprisingly not too surprising. The title borders on self-parody—a cliched way for the combo to invoke working-class heartland earnestness. But novelty clearly isn’t the point 15 years after Son Volt rose from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo—whose other key figure, Jeff Tweedy, has made aesthetic transformation one of the most important aspects of Wilco. Son Volt is kind of musical comfort food—it’s warm, pretty, and little bit gritty, and it always sounds the same. I did enjoy Farrar’s homage to Keith Richards on “Cocaine and Ashes,” where he sings, “I snorted my father / I'm still alive.”

I haven’t heard Farrar’s upcoming project with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie: a series of songs with lyrics based on Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur, written for the documentary One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur. But at this point, I know what I’m expecting. The duo is scheduled to perform at Lincoln Hall—the as-yet-unopened Lincoln Park venue operated by Schubas—on October 26.

Son Volt plays the Vic on Friday night.

photo: J. Wagner & S. Waugh

Today’s playlist:

Junior Mance, Sweet and Lovely (Milestone)
Willie Nelson, American Classic (Blue Note)
Walt Dickerson, Tell Us Only the Beautiful Things (Why Not/Candid)
Bobby Osborne & the Rocky Top X-Press, Bluegrass & Beyond (Rounder)
Fast ’n’ Bulbous, Waxed Oop (Cuneiform)

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