Working Drone

Jay Farrar secures his place as an alt-country icon and returns to form with a new solo album

Jay Farrar, reluctant icon of Americana music, pauses to consider his standing in the alt-country pantheon.

It's not something Farrar seems eager to discuss. After all, it's been more than 10 years since his first band, Uncle Tupelo, helped kick-start the alternative-country movement with an invigorating blend of rust belt folk songs infused with a rock 'n' punk mindset. Indeed, the title of Uncle Tupelo's debut album, 1990's No Depression, itself a cover of an old Carter Family gospel song, gave the alt-country movement its original and most lasting label. But Farrar, speaking from his home in St. Louis, says the mind tends to blur when national magazines and countless bands wind up using your album title for inspiration.

"It can get kinda confusing," he says with a tinge of weariness in his voice. "There was a time when I would wake up and ask myself, 'What is No Depression? What does it all mean?'"

Jay Farrar: Seemingly unconcerned about the anemic sales for his recent work.
Jay Farrar: Seemingly unconcerned about the anemic sales for his recent work.

Farrar figures he's long since come to terms with his position as a music-movement archetype. But only up to a point:

"It's gratifying to think that somebody considers what you did as a band was worthwhile enough to be noted in some fashion," he says. "But in a lot of ways it can be limiting when you're always expected to be associated with that first thing you did, those first couple of recordings. And it should also be pointed out that we were just kind of carrying on from bands we'd learned from. We didn't feel we invented anything."

Uncle Tupelo's sudden and reportedly acrimonious breakup in 1994 and the subsequent careers of Farrar and UT cohort Jeff Tweedy are gospel among the No Depression crowd, and passions for Farrar's next band, Son Volt, and Tweedy's more varied-sounding and commercially successful Wilco run high among their respective devotees. And while it's generally accepted that Farrar was the driving force behind the gritty soul of UT's early work, it can be equally argued that his songcraft with Son Volt lagged behind Wilco's more inspired oeuvre. While Tweedy was turning Wilco into a postmodern Replacements, replete with bleary nods to the Faces and the Stones, Farrar was keeping his "feet on the floor, both hands on the wheel" in driving Son Volt down safer side roads. Moreover, only Son Volt's debut, 1995's Trace, fully captured the brooding, heartland soundscape that Farrar seemed to effortlessly compose before sainthood.

But with his recently released solo album, Sebastopol, Farrar returns to form with a collection of finely written -- and finely wrought -- songs. He not only expands his musical vision with guest musicians and the occasional oddball instrumentation, he secures his familiar, soulful drone and keeps it from circling in on itself. The resulting material on Sebastopol is among Farrar's best and as strong as any in the No Depression canon.

Farrar, like R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, has an evocative voice that can't help but hang clouds on the most innocuous -- and at times inscrutable -- of lyrics. On Sebastopol, he often strings together thoughts and visions that come off as borderline non sequiturs (sample song title: "Feed Kill Chain"; sample lyric: "Packaged and put out more or less dreaming/Later on business low level screaming"); and yet, like Stipe, Farrar makes the words work as poetic images. Another effective aspect of Farrar's lyrics is that they tend to crowd his melodies, always pulling the notes down in a trail of melancholy by the end of the verse. It takes talent to induce a flinch by singing "I know you're gonna make it all right." It takes even more to write and present a song like "Drain," with its aching yet hopeful advice to "Drain your eyes/Slow down/But don't drop behind."

Other high points on Sebastopol include the almost-anthemic "Voodoo Candle," with its tumbling, top-heaving rhythms (supplied by Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster); and "Barstow," a beer-teared attack on all things corporate and test-marketed. "Barstow" is the CD's most country-sounding cut, alternative or otherwise, resplendent with proxy-hillbilly Gillian Welch on background vocals and her partner, David Rawlings, providing a suitably lonesome lap-steel tinkling in the mist.

"It was nice to work with people I'd known over the years," Farrar says of Sebastopol's array of guest players. Along with Wurster, Welch and Rawlings, there are contributions from former Bottle Rockets bassist Tom Ray, slide guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps, Farrar's brother Wade and, of special note, Steven Drodze of the Flaming Lips. Drodze was recruited because Farrar was listening to the Lips' epic Soft Bulletinalbum when starting to work on Sebastopol. Farrar had mentioned to co-producer John Agnello (Buffalo Tom, Varnaline) that Soft Bulletinwas one of the more interesting albums of the past few years. Agnello made a couple of calls and, just like that, Drodze was on his way from Oklahoma City to spend a weekend fleshing out Farrar's songs with straight keyboards, synthesized strings and church bells, and other sonic peculiarities. At times Drodze borders on intrusive, as on the distorted "Clear Day Thunder," and the string-swelled "Damaged Son." But Farrar's voice and vision always win out, and "Damaged Son," especially, leaves a potent memory.

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