No man is an island, but Jay Farrar has made a pretty good go at it. “When in doubt, move on, no need to sort it out,” sang Farrar in “Drown,” a near hit from Son Volt’s debut album, Trace. The sentiment seemed to be the only explanation for the taciturn, inscrutable songwriter’s abrupt departure from Uncle Tupelo, which left longtime friend/roommate Jeff Tweedy to soldier on with the remnants as Wilco. For Son Volt, Farrar recovered drummer Mike Heidorn, who had left Uncle Tupelo after the third album, and enlisted brothers Jim (bass) and Dave (guitar, fiddle, banjo, etc.) Boquist, who had previously worked with Joe Henry. (Pedal steel player/guitar tech Eric Heywood would become a de facto member.)
Jay proved the wiser, as Uncle Tupelo had became too narrow a field for both writers. But while Tweedy’s creative (and commercial) arc with Wilco was clear-cut, ascending from darn good rock outfit to critically lauded/complex/important band of the new millennium, Farrar seemed to recede into himself, building his own world around a resonant, timeless vocal tone, increasingly impressionistic ruralisms and a lyrical sensibility often based primarily on texture. (Only that ancient throat could roll around such wordplay as “parabolic louver lighting,” “stevedores,” “Esperanto” and “sanguinary vitamins” and maintain a sense of dignity.)
Trace serves as both debut and high-water mark, as subsequent albums have provided diminishing returns. And it remains the perfect accompaniment for the proverbial lonesome highway: “Both feet on the floor, two hands on the wheel / May the wind take your troubles away,” purrs Farrar in the opening incantation, “Windfall.” Both oblique and accessible, Trace swings from mordantly downtrodden (yet reassuring) acoustic Americana (“Tear Stained Eye, “Too Early”) to gutsy rock-crunch (“Drown,” “Route”), and remains the definitive album of the initial alt-country frenzy of the mid-’90s. It’s a work that, much like the R.E.M. of “Fall on Me” or “Driver 8,” smacks of the burnished and archaic, even while constructing its own oblique mythology outside of time or place.
Straightaways trolled the same waters but — while perfectly sound — it staggered under the weight of expectation. Son Volt hadn’t blown its wad — Trace just set the bar too high. Not so for the genuinely mediocre Wide Swing Tremolo, an album with a few fine moments (particularly the fiercely rocking “Straightface”). Nevertheless, the flourishes that had initially made Son Volt uncanny had transgressed into stale formula.
“When in doubt, move on. No need to sort it out.” With Son Volt clearly treading water, Jay moved on. It was hard not to notice that he and Tweedy both shifted to more tricked-up, deconstructed regions in 2000 — the latter in recording Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Farrar with his solo debut, Sebastopol, which received none of that lauded record’s fanfare. Nevertheless, it’s Farrar’s strongest work since Trace. Jay had employed unorthodox tunings and slack keys here and there in the past, but made it the idiom on here, along with unorthodox rhythms and expanding instrumentation — the latter by the Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd. (Other guests include drummers Jon Wurster of Superchunk and Matt Pence of Centro-Matic, as well as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings). Sebastopol keeps one foot firmly on rootsy terrain, but the experimental bent adds a new flexibility and, at times, even a brightness and levity to Farrar’s typically sober muse (the sublime “Different Eyes” is a great example). “Barstow” is fairly straight-up alt- country. “Prelude (Make It Alright)” is an all-instrumental drum’n’bass workout beneath wheeling strains of sitar. The brooding, poppy “Feedkill Chain” could be latter-period Echo & the Bunnymen, while “Drain” is vintage Farrar — pensive, beautiful and as good as anything on Trace, only played on different instruments. The album was finished by the summer of 2000, but wasn’t released until the fall of 2001, as Farrar looked for a label. (Warners soured when Son Volt’s second and third albums combined didn’t sell as much as the group’s debut.)
The five-song ThirdShiftGrottoSlack culls some new tracks as well as a booty-shaking remix of Sebastopol‘s “Damn Shame,” perhaps indicating a sly humor at work behind Farrar’s quiet demeanor.
June 2003 heralded a second solo LP — the abstract, strange and often spare Terroir Blues — on Farrar’s own imprint, Act/Resist. The album is stirring and unexpected — if Sebastopol‘s uncanniness is rooted in flourishes, Terroir Blues is all starkness and prismatic arrangements. The lovely “Dent County” is constructed only from rudiments of piano, steel guitar and Farrar’s bruised tones. “Fool King’s Crown” is tweaked-out and lumbering. The treated vocals here and elsewhere are off-putting, however, particularly on the echo-laden, achingly pretty “Hard Is the Fall” (the first version, that is: the album contains alternate takes of several songs within its 59 minutes). This is no passive listen — it is Trace rendered impressionistically — but it has many rewards among difficult and unsettling stretches. It’s also an important development in Farrar’s consistent retreat from scrutiny; it’s as if Tweedy’s emergence as a public figure (Pazz & Jop Poll, Dylan-like documentary, David/Goliath industry story) abetted (if not aided) Farrar’s very public (and willful) disappearance.
Building up from to gentle to mighty, the live Stone, Steel & Bright Lights is handsome, heartfelt and occasionally gripping (“Heart on the Ground,” “Damn Shame”). The imperfections in Farrar’s singing can be distracting at times, but the implacable force of his delivery trumps wobbly pitch every time. Covers of Syd Barrett’s “Lucifer Sam” and Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” cap off the 19-track show, tacit acknowledgment of the humility held within this strongly independent artist’s mind.
After a six-year break for his solo career, Farrar got the itch to start rocking again, and reconvened Son Volt in the spring of 2004 to record a track for the Alejandro Escovedo tribute Por Vida. The quartet made plans to record a new album that fall, but the reunion fell apart over financial issues before entering the studio. Farrar pushed ahead regardless, drafting drummer Dave Bryson (who was part of Canyon, the group that Farrar toured with in 2003), bassist Andrew Duplantis (Bob Mould) and alt-country guitarist extraordinaire Brad Rice to make Okemah and the Melody of Riot. It’s easy to hear why Farrar wanted to reactivate the band, as it features his strongest and most focused songwriting since Trace. And for a group that was thrown together in a couple of weeks, the four sound as if they’ve played together for years. The opening salvo of “Bandages & Scars,” “Afterglow 61” and “Jet Pilot” rocks harder than anything the previous lineup ever recorded, while the closing ballad, “World Waits for You,” is perhaps the most emotionally direct the lyrically obtuse songwriter has ever been. A stunning return to form.