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When a clash of egos finally foreclosed the mighty UNCLE TUPELO back in the mid-90s, the subsequent band projects of Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar presented case-studies in the divergent personalities which had defined alt-country: Tweedy as rambunctious rocker, Farrar as austere troubadour. While Tweedy went on to run the gamut of American pop cultural reference and beyond with WILCO, embracing liberation as experimentation, Farrar merely steadied his hand at the plough, braced himself against the chill wind of lonesomeness and kept the country faith with SON VOLT. Viewed from another angle, both men could be said to have followed roughly similar solo career arcs, belatedly branching out from the crusty tropes of roots rock.
Formed Chicago, Illinois in 1994, the aforementioned singer-songwriter/guitarist Farrar and his awol UNCLE TUPELO compadre Mike Heidorn (drums), were joined by brothers Jim (bass) and Dave Boquist (steel guitar/banjo/fiddle). Fans yearning for the down-at-heel spirit of UNCLE TUPELO’s moodier moments were comforted by the fact that Farrar, himself, was still treading the dirt-road backstreets of C&W’s dark underbelly with SON VOLT.
TRACE (1995) {*8} stepped back to a time when music was steeped in honky-tonk, and at long last, a singular Farrar was able to cast his line in cathartic waters, while identifying with sounds that could easily be mistaken for classic MERLE HAGGARD, BUCK OWENS or GRAM PARSONS. Weird then, that he would choose a RONNIE WOOD song, `Mystify Me’, to cover, although it fitted well within the structure of beauties like the rocking `Drown’, `Windfall’ and `Catching On’.
Faring better in the charts by comparison, Top 50 sets STRAIGHTAWAYS (1997) {*6} and WIDE SWING TREMOLO (1998) {*7}, left fans in no doubt Farrar and Co could match the likes of R.E.M., while there were the odd touches of eclecticism. While some critics railed against what they perceived as the unrelenting miserabilism of Farrar’s approach (especially with regards to the SV live experience), there was no disputing the quality or honesty of the writing; check out `Caryatid Easy’, `Creosote’ and `Cemetery Savior’ from ’97 and `Dead Man’s Clothes’, `Driving The View’ and `Right On Through’ from ’98.
JAY FARRAR duly took leave of absence from SON VOLT, and when he was good and ready he offered up SEBASTAPOL (2001) {*8}, an album of self-conscious beauty, but of beauty all the same. Acoustic numbers such as the whispering `Clear Day Thunder’ and `Outside The Door’, evoked that folksy UNCLE TUPELO formula, where as `Barstow’ and `Damn Shame’ had FARRAR’s own personalised stamp. Elsewhere on the set, he’d trouble dealing with the process alone (after all he was always best with a band), although the man proved he was still a great contender in the American alt-country scene.
FARRAR was still meandering down his own ragged path, cutting soundtrack set, THE SLAUGHTER RULE (2003) {*7}; coincidentally, Tweedy supplied the music for Ethan Hawke’s 2002 directorial debut, “Chelsea Walls”. It was arguably FARRAR’s arcane baritone, wounded way beyond its years, that wove ‘Tupelo into the seam of the Great American Musical lore, and it’s that voice that continued to define him, both in relation to his erstwhile partner, and in relation to whatever project he turned his hand to. And even if the OST featured only one FARRAR vocal, `Gather’, it was the grainy locus for pretty much everything else on this set and one of the starkest and most affecting contexts for his art since the sublime “March 16-20, 1992”. Peppered throughout the soundtrack like rustic zen koans, the rest of FARRAR’s contributions refreshingly distilled a folky acoustic signature rather than labouring over songs. The ghost of NICK DRAKE and the spectre of JOHN FAHEY hovered over his high, ringing finger-picking, raked by quavering echo, arching feedback, film dialogue and some shades of twang.
Directors Alex and Andrew Smith pad out Jay’s work with an imaginative collection of contemporary alt-country and assorted oddities from the various artists vaults. Linked back into FARRAR’s own `Cold Chimes’, where the queasy frequencies are vaguely predictive of Richard G. Mitchell’s work on “Grand Theft Parsons”, all told, it was an attractively offbeat entry point for alt-country novices, a must for FARRAR fans and compelling evidence that the mans was at his best writing to a focused concept.
The austere TERROIR BLUES (2003) {*7} found him paring back the arrangements with a ruthlessness unwitnessed since his split from Tweedy, resulting in one of the most intimate yet exploratory works of his career. Much of the meat comes through the guitar work of FARRAR and his guitar foil, Mark Spencer, while the dark, distorted, downbeat dirges shine on `Cahokian’, `No Rolling Back’, `Out On The Road’ and `Walk You Down’.
While the concert double-disc, STONE, STEEL & BRIGHT LIGHTS (2004) {*7}, was the sound of FARRAR in the raw, showcasing the cream of his sideline-SON VOLT work and tearing through a couple of explosive interpretations courtesy of SYD BARRETT’s `Lucifer Sam’ and NEIL YOUNG’s `Like A Hurricane’ (those who witnessed ‘Tupelo era set closers like CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL’s `Effigy’ will know what to expect).
A RETROSPECTIVE: 1995-2000 (2005) {*8} drew on the archives for a SON VOLT summary, spicing up the package with more obscure covers such as ALEX CHILTON’s `Holocaust’, LEADBELLY’s `Ain’t No More Cane’ and TOWNES VAN ZANDT’s `Rex’s Blues’, amongst others which including WOODY GUTHRIE’s `I’ve Got To Know’, Jerry Chesnut’s `Looking At The World Through A Windshield’, PAMELA POLLAND’s `Tulsa Country’ and BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN’s `Open All Night’.
For reasons known only to himself, Farrar resurrected the SON VOLT moniker for OKEMAH AND THE MELODY OF RIOT (2005) {*7}, even though he was the band’s sole remaining member. Whether that made it a solo set in all but name was debateable but the album – recorded with ex-WHISKEYTOWN guitarist Brad Rice, Andrew DuPlantis and Dave Bryson – showcased some of Jay’s sharpest, hardest-rocking material since his country-punk beginnings. Named for WOODY GUTHRIE’s home town and boasting iconic, neo-socialist artwork, it was also as politically charged as anything he’d put his pen to, with `Jet Pilot’ even referencing GIL SCOTT-HERON’s `The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ and The WHO’s `Won’t Get Fooled Again’.
Side by side with a triumvirate of collaborative sets: DEATH SONGS FOR THE LIVING (2006) {*6} as the trad-folkies Gob Iron (alongside VARNALINE’s Anders Parker), ONE FAST MOVE OR I’M GONE: MUSIC FROM KEROUAC’S BIG SUR (2010) {*6} with DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE’s Ben Gibbard, and the unrecorded lyrics album of WOODY GUTHRIE in NEW MULTITUDES (2012) {*6} – billed with MY MORNING JACKET’s Yim Yames and CENTRO-MATIC’s Will Johnson – FARRAR kept his SON VOLT on the boil.
Although one could vouch for his passionate return to folk territory, and adding Derry DeBorja (on keyboards), 2007’s SON VOLT set THE SEARCH {*7} declared the Mk.II version were as inspirational as their incarnation of a dozen years back. Clearly comfortable at saddling his alt-country meanderings in with NEIL YOUNG, PETTY or R.E.M., Farrar captures a political mood in tracks like `Adrenaline And Heresy’, `Action’ and `Automatic Society’.
With DeBorja and Rice making way for keyboardist Mark Spencer (ex-Blood Oranges) and Chris Masterson (lead guitar), Farrar and Co were again finding a path to the Top 50 via AMERICAN CENTRAL DUST (2009) {*7}. As the title suggested, bracing country-rock was the central agenda for the quintet, their first for Rounder Records. Stepping up the ante on environmental and economic issues, reflective Americana was never better than `When The Wheels Don’t Move’, `Pushed Too Far’ and `Cocaine And Ashes’.
Taking the Bakersfield country sound as their mantle, Farrar slid further into old-timey pedal steel country via the Grand Ole Opry-meets-“Sweetheart Of The Rodeo” set on the appropriately-titled, HONKY TONK (2013) {*7}. Offering up a horizontal hootenanny of old-school C&W (think HAGGARD, NELSON and OWENS), back-porch waltzes comprised `Angel Of The Blues’, `Wild Side’, `Hearts And Minds’ and `Bakersfield’.
Subsequently switching labels to the Thirty Tigers-endorsed Transmit Sound and adding pedal steel player Jason Kardong and Jacob Edwards, Farrar, Spencer and Hunt unveiled SON VOLT’s next follow-up set, NOTES OF BLUE {*7} in February 2017. If NEIL YOUNG (and/or either CRAZY HORSE or Stray Gators) had passed prematurely to the other side, then SV would’ve been their retrograde reincarnation. The trouble was that all aforementioned parties were still kicking up a dust storm. Americana, rural blues or alt-country, maybe SON VOLT were in their own schizoid time-warp; but then again what was not to like in barn-storming spinners such as `Cherokee St.’, `Static’, `Lost Souls’ and `Sinking Down’ – the antithesis of the calming `Cairo And Southern’, `Promise The World’ and `Back Against The Wall’. Further personnel changes arrived when Andrew Duplantis superseded Kardong and Edwards; the bassist filling the vacancy on the “Ballymena” EP.
By the following year, Farrar, Spencer and Duplantis were joined by guitarist Chris Frame and sticksman Mark Patterson. March 2019 saw SON VOLT release UNION {*7} and bite into the divided politics and inequalities that burdened the un-United States of America under the polarized and power-hungry (`Reality Winner’) President Donald J. Trump. Maybe 40% of Farrar and Co’s doubters would strongly disagree with the band’s soul-searching sentiments (e.g. `The 99’, `Lady Liberty’ and `While Rome Burns’), but the majority of right-minded Americans, and those further afield, simply want a proud nation not run by greedy people in it for themselves and their misguided brethren. SON VOLT might’ve taken their foot off the hard-rock pedal (as in parts of “Notes Of Blue”), however, rebel Jay’s pen was mightier than the sword – we live in hope.
© MC Strong 1996-2008/BG-LCS / rev-up MCS Apr2013-Jun2019

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