Music News

Working Drone

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?'"

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 Bulletin album when starting to work on Sebastopol. Farrar had mentioned to co-producer John Agnello (Buffalo Tom, Varnaline) that Soft Bulletin was 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.

Sebastopol also marks a change in Farrar's approach to playing guitar, specifically the alternate tuning of his strings. Farrar says he'd dabbled with alternate tunings since his Uncle Tupelo days, but he says almost every song on Sebastopol was originally shaped by the exotic sounds of his newfound chords.

"I used tunings I learned either from listening to records, like Hawaiian slack-key guitar albums, or blues tunes," he says. "And others I came up with myself, just experimenting until something sounded good. I found that it makes the writing process go easier. You sort of take it in a new direction you wouldn't be taking on a standard tune. It's a lot like relearning the guitar, so there's that sense of learning and excitement because you're figuring out new chords and hand configurations. And, it sounds different. It has that droning string voice."

Farrar says his favorite alternate tuning is the open C -- with a twist. "The bottom string is a C and the top string I changed to a D to give it more of a modal type sound," he says. "I've grown to like it a lot." He adds that the tuning is especially evident on the song "Vitamins," an ethereal, otherworldly cut that closes Sebastopol.

Farrar had to go back to standard tunings for live performances, mostly because he didn't want to juggle a myriad of song-specific guitars onstage. He also wanted to make things easier for his lone accompanist, Mark Spencer, a former guitarist for the Blood Oranges. Farrar's choice to showcase his new songs in an acoustic setting is curious in that the schematic leaves out much of Sebastopol's aforementioned accouterments. But Farrar wanted to go with a more austere sound.

"I wanted to present the songs in more of a stripped-down approach," he says. "It's good for a change of pace. It's something I've always wanted to do. It sort of takes the songs back to their point of origination, with just the acoustic guitar."

As for Farrar going back to his own origins by way of reunions with Uncle Tupelo or Son Volt, he seems skeptical, saying only that there's a "possibility" that Son Volt will return in one shape or another. And he pooh-poohs Internet-fueled rumors that he plans to open up for Wilco once Tweedy and company get their oft-delayed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album released and road-ready. Farrar seems at once amused and weary of such speculation, saying that he's more concerned with what he's doing now as opposed to looking back. He doesn't let the past get him overly worried about the future, either, at least not where the music business is concerned. It doesn't seem to matter to Farrar that Son Volt's last two CDs together sold fewer copies than the band's debut. Or that Son Volt's anemic record sales led to an unceremonious parting of the ways with Warner Bros. Or that Sebastopol is currently flying under most commercial radar, in part because radio can't find space for Farrar's introspective efforts among the carnival of boy bands and Creed clones squeezed on the airwaves.

"I guess if you look at it purely in terms of whether the musical landscape could be better, the answer would be yes," he says. "But I've been involved in this long enough to know that things could be worse. I'm just mostly preoccupied with being able to put out something that I write. And that's what I've been able to do."

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Ted Simons