I asked the record store clerk what was playing, the fall of 1995. She answered with a mumble. "Some Dolt?" "Sun Bowl?" What was she saying, I wondered? I looked confused, so she repeated the name, this time pointing to the cover. Son Volt's debut, Trace, sounded familiar even if the band was new to me. It seems that I had heard that singer before. I vaguely recalled that after Uncle Tupelo fell apart, both of the singer-songwriters were forming bands. Jay Farrar was recording his own album.
So, this was it. "I like it," I told the clerk. She shrugged. "Me too, but his voice gets to me after too long." Farrar's former partner, Jeff Tweedy, brought the sunnier side to their pioneering alt-country-punk blend. He played McCartney to his co-singer and bassist's Lennon. No surprise that Tweedy's new lineup, Wilco, continued the mix of rock but with lighter tunes, along with Americana and, later, electronics. Son Volt, its name combining two historic studios, hearkens back. It roams up and down alongside the Mississippi River, near Uncle Tupelo's hometown of Belleville, Illinois. It may be a looser version of a concept album, loneliness on a muddy bank.
Its forty-two minutes alternate rock crunch with honky-tonk swagger, and feature desolate ballads followed by slamming power chords. It's starkly produced by the same producer who worked with Tweedy and Farrar before and after their new band's debuts, Brian Paulson. Similarities endure. Unsurprisingly, Trace continues where Uncle Tupelo's last album, Anodyne, left off. But it lacks evidence that Farrar had progressed or dared more. This commitment, over Sun Volt's career, Farrar's solo albums, remains the strength and weakness of Son Volt. I prefer them to Wilco, but I remain in the minority, given Wilco’s great success since.
"May the wind take your troubles away," Farrar sings as the album opens with "Windfall." It is lovely, thanks to Dave Boquist's fiddle, but it risks right away exposing the heart of Farrar's approach. Coming out of his teens singing with Uncle Tupelo, he already sounded jaded, world-weary, and about to fall into the grave after endless heartache and repeated resignation. Are such lyrics a sign of a young talent adept at channeling traditional tropes? Or, as Robert Christgau, who never liked Uncle Tupelo either, sniped in a take-down of Trace, a sign of stagnation?
These tracks compliment night rides, gloomy mornings, lazy afternoons. For all their amplified attitude, bolstered as on "Live Free," "Route" or "Drown" by original Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn, many of the brasher tunes don't leap out as much as they should. Yet, "Tear Stained Eye" steps forward gracefully. Farrar laments: "St. Genevieve can hold back the water/ Saints don't bother with the tear-stained eye." It chugs along steadily, between a banjo and pedal-steel backing. It deserves to be covered by many a bar-band ever since. Similarly, "Ten Second News" crawls along appealingly, if full of despair. "Catching On" sounds most like Tupelo, and balances emotion with verve the best. Jim Boquist’s bass moves this along forcefully.
"Too Early" adroitly adds accordion to the mid-tempo arrangement. A concluding cover of Ron Wood's "Mystifies Me" recalls a Rolling Stones' outtake from their early-1970s country-blues period. With tracks laid down in the early winter of late 1994, this may reflect Farrar’s confusion after his alliance with his longtime friend Tweedy splintered. At least Heidorn had returned.
In closing, this album holds up respectably. Son Volt's next two albums pursued this same style if to diminishing returns. I had to stop my wife from throwing out that pair of CD's, as she admitted boredom. Perhaps not by accident, Farrar then abandoned the Son Volt name by the end of the 1990s for even less inspired solo records. He then tellingly revived the more reliable band name in 2005. That ensemble issues decent albums. Their latest, titled Honky Tonk, pays tribute to the C&W Bakersfield sound. But it often feels indistinguishable from its inspirations from decades earlier. Whether this is progress or complacency, I continue to admire Farrar's voice. Yet, I find myself, like that record store clerk two decades ago, tired of such dogged consistency.
I still wait for Farrar to take more chances, as Uncle Tupelo, and punks, did. And, as a canny Wilco led by Tweedy has done since 1995, to critical and popular acclaim. I'm not expecting Farrar or the reconstituted Son Volt to play stadiums, or jam-band festivals. There's a place for their more stolid, starker, roots-oriented music that challenges complacency and unsettles listeners. But when I play my hometown L.A. heroes such as X, The Gun Club, The Blasters, and Los Lobos, I hear how punk and Americana joined forces to innovate. I think Uncle Tupelo blew doors open. Wilco sauntered forward. Farrar and Son Volt snuck in that barn door behind. (Published 3/15: Holy Hell! Spectrum Culture series of looking back at albums 20 years earlier.)