When he fronted Uncle Tupelo with Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar was the poetic counterpoint to Tweedy’s punk rocker persona and the contrast made for a balance that’s always seemed lacking in Son Volt. And while Farrar has managed to pull out a couple of very memorable songs on every Son Volt disc, on the whole, they’ve always seemed to be missing some crucial element. But then, Uncle Tupelo’s “Anodyne” would be a pretty tough record for anyone to follow.
Now, after a string of solo
records that had Farrar trying out different styles ranging from blues to psychedelia to “space junk,” he’s re-grouped under his old band Son Volt’s banner and recorded a new CD on Legacy Recordings that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Son Volt’s first two discs, “Trace” and “Straightaways.”
This time out, Son Volt has an entirely new line-up that features guitarist Brad Rice (Backsliders, Ryan Adams), bassist Andrew Duplantis (Alejandro Escovedo, Jon Dee Graham), and drummer Dave Bryson. Only one original member, pedal-steel guitarist Eric Heywood, returns for a single appearance.
From the reverb-heavy first chords of the opening track, “Bandages and Scars,” Farrar is back on familiar territory. “Okemah and the Melody of Riot” sounds a lot like a trip through Americana by one of contemporary alt country’s icons.
Re-embracing the Neil Young influences he displayed in Uncle Tupelo and the earlier version of Son Volt, “Okemah” does away with the fiddles, banjos, mandolins, and accordions that peppered Son Volt’s earlier offerings and, except for an organ mixed into one track, a dulcimer in another, and a lone piano and pedal-steel duet, sticks with a straightforward guitar-driven sound. And it’s some real nice guitar work going on here too, acoustic, slide and, primarily, electric.
There’s a couple of songs that sound like they would have fit on either of Son Volt’s first two records - “Endless War,” “Who,” “Atmosphere,” and “Chaos Streams” all fit that description. Then there’s “6 String Belief” with its great riff and, best of all, “Gramophone” that both sound a little more expansive and better realized than most of “Wide Swing Tremolo.”
This could be why “Okemah” sounds as good as it does. Following on the heels of “Sebastapol,” “Terroir Blues,” and even the last Son Volt record, “Wide Swing Tremolo,” ”Okemah” feels like a comfortable old pair of shoes. There’s no instant classic like “Windfall” here but the disc is more cohesive and more listenable than anything Farrar has done in a while.
If you missed the kind of choppy guitar-laden songs like “Loose String” and “Drown” that made “Trace” such a great disc, it’s a pretty safe bet you’ll like “Okemah and the Melody of Riot.” It’s filled with a lot of the same kind of metaphors and references to music, to places, and to the road. And while it’s got its quiet moments, particularly the last track, it mostly rocks in the Crazy Horse mode.
I’m one of those who’s happy to hear Jay Farrar headed back in this direction. Now if Wilco would just record something like “AM” again – and the Jayhawks would regroup . . .