By Kevin Broughton
In the spring of 1997 Son Volt released its second and most underrated album, three years removed from the breakup of alt country’s most important band, Uncle Tupelo. A discussion of this gem requires a few stipulations up front.
There are Wilco guys and Son Volt guys, with very little overlap. If you’re a Wilco guy we probably can’t be friends, since you took sides with the home-wrecking, slimy snake Jeff Tweedy.* While Uncle Tupelo was probably not built to go the distance due to stylistic differences between Tweedy and Jay Farrar, the proximate cause of the band’s breakup was the former’s hitting on the latter’s girlfriend (now wife). Besides, Wilco made one good album. It was called A.M. I think we’re done here.
If someone tells you he understands the meaning of Jay Farrar’s lyrics, he will lie to you again. Okay, maybe someone with a PhD in philosophy and literature grasps them, but probably not. There have been obvious signs – going back to Uncle Tupelo – he’s on a different intellectual plane from mere mortals. Who uses words like farcical, paradigm, caryatid and workaday masses? In songs, I mean. I’d say he’s on the same level as Rush’s Neil Peart, but if you’ve read enough Ayn Rand you can decode 2112.
Nobody has a voice like Jay’s. That voice is what makes Son Volt sui generis – more than the writing, more than the punk-meets-country musical mash-ups. It seems as tough to describe as his lyrics are to decipher. Jay’s songs are one subset I never attempt to cover on the rare occasions I play in public. I once called his ability to slide up and down the register without going off key as “dude can harmonize with himself.” A good friend – and a much better musician than I – did it one better: “He’s always about a quarter flat, but it works.”
All that being said, let’s move to the recollection proper.
For most if not all Son Volt fans, 1995’s Trace isn’t just the band’s best album, but one of very few records that are the benchmarks for all of alt country that came after. Viewed historically, they have a point that’s hard to argue. Farrar recruited Uncle Tupelo’s drummer Mike Heidorn and the Boquist brothers, Jim (bass, backing vocals) and Dave (fiddle, banjo, mandolin, lap steel) for the band’s first iteration. And thanks to VH-1, “Drown” became their one bona fide radio hit. That lineup would last for two more albums and tours, plus a one-off in 2001 for a benefit for Alejandro Escovedo. Wide Swing Tremolo signaled Jay’s entry into well, weirdness, and a couple of solo albums that were, frankly, borderline unlistenable.
But Straightaways was the perfect follow-up album. It’s Trace’s closest cousin, with its balanced mix of driving rockers and contemplative ballads. “Caryatid Easy” comes hard out of the gate with the same frenetic, stop-go pacing that made “Drown” such a hot hit. Heidorn’s drum strikes don’t drive the beat; they fill space in a song loaded with the tempo changes that were an Uncle Tupelo trademark.
And then, a calm, lilting, reassuring change of pace in “Back into Your World.” If we were living still in the age of 45s, would there be a more perfect flip side to “Tear Stained Eye” on Trace? Heck, no. And as stated, decoding Farrar’s lyrics is best left to those invited to the annual MENSA picnic. Yet here is some rare, low-hanging fruit: “Leave this impasse, if you’re gonna leave anything. Just don’t leave here without speaking your mind.” Poetry, and set perfectly to a gently flowing acoustic guitar melody.
Then we’re jacked up again with the rat-a-tat staccatos of “Picking Up the Signal.” Two things in particular strike you about the up-tempo numbers on this album. The arrangements are unconventional, bordering on reckless. Riff-driven with a declaratory opening line or two, they flail through a path that leads to a climax – with no rhyme or reason as to placement of chorus or bridge or verse. And, it works because of the tight pocket formed by Heidorn’s drums and Jim Boquist’s big thumb. (And oh yeah: what sweet harmonies.)
There’s a perfect flow to the whole thing, too. “Last Minute Shakedown,” “No More Parades” (with its wonderfully placed and paced banjo) and “Creosote” are the ideal counterweights throughout, placed just so. And they’re actually light, compared to the balance of Farrar’s body of work. With a couple of exceptions, of course.
“Been Set Free,” is swampy and foreboding. Downbeat-laden and moody, its liberation seems to come with a high price, punctuated with heavy harp and warbling vocals: I’ve been loaded down…now I’ve been set free.
In November of 1996, Son Volt hit the big stage: Austin City Limits, in the middle of a tour supporting Trace. One song from a yet unnamed album would make that night’s set list.
In the intervening years, Farrar and the varying lineups of Son Volt would meander. The closest they’d come to Trace-esque sound would, in my estimation, be 2007’s The Search. And 2013 would see the homecoming of the band’s entire fan base, in a collective “Yes!” upon the release of Honky Tonk. Pure Bakersfield country, with man-sized helpings of double fiddle and pedal steel. Parenthetically, the last time I saw our intrepid publisher in person was at a Jackson, Miss. show on that tour. (And Jay signed my guitar, though only through an intermediary/roadie.) In less than two weeks, they’ll --heck, it’s just Jay and his band, who am I kidding? -- release Notes of Blue, and we hope to review it before then.
But back to the Austin City Limits gig from Armistice Day 1996. You want to see Son Volt at its peak? Here they are, doing the one song from the set not plucked from Trace. “Left A Slide” may be the most Son Volt song ever; and yes, from its best album, Straightaways. Behold, in all its haunting transcendence:
*You think I hold a grudge? Jay did a memoir (really a collection of short vignettes) in 2013. He refers to Tweedy as simply “the bass player.” Uncle Tupelo is “the touring band.” He should have whipped the bass player’s ass, then left.