Son Volt

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Trace, 6.5/10
Straightways, 5.5/10
Wide Swing Tremolo, 5.5/10
Jay Farrar: Sebastopol , 5/10
Jay Farrar: Terrior Blues (2003), 5/10
Okemah And The Melody Of Riot (2005), 5/10
Gob Iron: Death Songs for the Living (2006), 4/10
The Search (2007), 4.5/10
American Central Dust (2009), 4.5/10
Farrar, etc: New Multitudes (2012), 5/10

Jay Farrar's Son Volt were mostly a vehicle for their leader's philosophizing: Trace (1995) was a concept album that analyzed the collective subconscious of the people of the Mississippi river.
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Il country-rock degli anni '90 si chiama Wilco e Son Volt, i due gruppi formati dagli ex Uncle Tupelo (Jeff Tweedy e Jay Farrar rispettivamente). Farrar si e` trasferito dall'Illinois alla Louisiana e ha trovato in Dave Boquist (chitarra, banjo, violino) la spalla ideale per raccontare le sue storie americane, d'ambiente Midwest, proletario, piccolo borghese.

Trace (Warner, 1995) e` di fatto un concept scritto durante i suoi pellegrinaggi lungo il corso del Mississippi. Farrar ripercorre la coscienza collettiva di quelle zone rurali attraverso la tetra visione di Out Of The Picture e la parabola filosofica di Windfall. Ogni tanto (Drown e Route) s'imbarca in brani elettrici, rasentando il sound dei Rolling Stones, ma la sua vocazione sono le ballate funeree e struggenti come Tear-Stained Eye e soprattutto Ten Seconds News, la semplice storia acustica di Too Early. Neil Young (tanto per cambiare) e Gram Parsons sono le influenze principali di queste lente e ponderose meditazioni sul senso dell'esistenza umana.

Straightways (Warner, 1997) tende un po' a ripetersi. Per quanto Farrar tenti di vivacizzare il sound con un paio di escursioni rock (Caryatid Easy e Cemetery Savior, nulla di speciale comunque), e con il brio dei primi Byrds nel jingle-jangle di Picking Up The Signal, il forte del gruppo rimane la mesta lullaby alla Tom Petty (Back Into Your World su tutte), e ancora una volta a vincere sono i momenti piu` funerei, come il cupissimo lamento di Been Set Free. Il resto e` davvero troppo country. Detto della sincerita` del personaggio e della bravura dei musicisti, rimane pero` il problema che queste canzoni sono soltanto veicoli per raccontare storie, e, come spesso capita nel country, storie non particolarmente interessanti. Come fatto musicale, valgono davvero poco.

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

Wide SWing Tremolo (Warner Bros, 1998) alleviates the sense of dejavu with stabs at southern boogie (Straightface, Right On Through and Flow), and with a few surreal instrumental tracks (Jodel and Chanty) that are probably worth more than the band's fans realize. Farrar is still himself in the mid-tempo Medicine Hat and shines in the mournful and almost mystical Streets That Time Walks and Carry You Down, but he is clever enough to know that there are only so many ways one can repeat the same story until it is perceived as the blabbering of an old man, no matter how erudite the words.

Unfortunately, Farrar's first solo, Sebastopol (Artemis, 2001), continues in the derivative style of Son Volt's Wide Swing Tremolo. Other than the apocalyptic Feel Free and the catchy Vitamins, the album plods along with mildly entertaining ballads like Outside The Door, Barstow, Voodoo Candle, that add little to the canon while retelling stories that have been heard countless times before. Damaged Son, Make It Alright, Drain are too thin, no matter how pretty. And, finally, Different Eyes and Clear Day Thunder try too hard to achieve a level of drama that is just not within Farrar's reach. Strings, synthesizer and saxophone add a sensual texture to the project, but cannot dispel the feeling that Farrar has, quite simply, precious little to say.

The five-song EP ThirdShiftGrottoSlack (Artemis, 2002) sounds like left-overs, although Farrar's music is ever catchy and warm.

Farrar's second album, Terrior Blues (Act, 2003), is even more confused and unfocused. Maybe the idea was to produce an album similar to the Byrds' middle phase, when surreal instrumental sounds (the several Space Junk pieces) alternated with catchy vocal refrains (No Rolling Back, Hanging on to You) at a country pace and inhabited by bleak lyrics. Truth is that Farrar is no Graham Parsons and he is no Roger McGuinn. He is intriguing when he deconstructs the blues (Fool King's Crown,) and country music (Hard Is the Fall), and is certainly more effective in his chamber folk-jazz ventures (Cahokian, Out on the Road), but the center of mass is badly tilted towards what he does worst. Stone, Steel & Bright Lights (Artemis, 2004) is a live album.

A Retrospective (2005) covers the years from 1995 to 2000 (the first three albums) but contains too much filler.

Son Volt are a significantly different band on Okemah And The Melody Of Riot (Sony, 2005), as Farrar surrounds himself with a different set of musicians. Farrar dominates the proceedings, but the others play the music. They play in a manner that is neither enthusiastic nor creative. While technically proficient, they sound like hired hands who reluctantly perform music that they don't believe in. Neither does Farrar, who offers half-baked compositions with trite lyrics and, basically, hardly a reason to turn them into an album. It is also odd that a Woody Guthrie tribute (as the title and Bandages and Scars imply) would offer such loud music. Farrar is a better popsmith (Who, World Waits For You) than a storyteller, but here he tries to be too much of a storyteller in the old tradition.

Farrar's side-projeect Gob Iron weds alt-country and traditional folk on Death Songs for the Living (Transmit Sound, 2006).

The Search (2007), with the addition of Derry Deborja on keyboards, is a rather uneventful parade of conventional Farrar sermons; and American Central Dust (2009) had no verve and no purpose, other than recycling the Son Volt sound.

One Fast Move Or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur (2009) was a soundtrack composed with Death Cab For Cutie's Benjamin Gibbard.

Crosby Stills Nash & Young must have been the inspiration for the supergroup formed by Son Volt's Jay Farrar, Centro-matic's Will Johnson, Anders Parker and My Morning Jacket's Jim James that debuted with New Multitudes (2012), a concept devoted to reinventing the music for old Woody Guthrie lyrics. Best is James' Talking Empty Bed Blues, that recaptures the dejected pathos of the "dust bowl ballads".

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