By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"No one here says what they mean," Jay Farrar sings on Straightaways, the latest offering from Son Volt. That line is accurate, the title ironic, since this album is a triumph of indirect transmission, implied feeling, and mumbled delivery unmatched since REM's Murmur. There's nothing as accessible as "Windfall" or "Tear Stained Eye" from Son Volt's debut Trace on this album; rather, Farrar and company rely for the most part on washes of pedal steel and slide guitar and brushstrokes of acoustic strumming to get across an end-of-the-day feeling of melancholy, a feeling of defeat that's redeemed by the narrator's having made the stand necessary to record those emotions.
"Just don't leave here without speaking your mind," Farrar pleads in "Back Into Your World," perhaps the clearest expression of this tradeoff on the album. Later on, in "Picking Up the Signal" he sings of "turning away from faster" in order to "finally get it right." It's an irony as sharp as Straightaway's title that for all the No Depression-style accolades both Farrar and former Uncle Tupelo partner Jeff Tweedy have gotten for forging a new kind of Americana-style new country, both of them (Tweedy to a lesser degree) reject one of "old" country's most basic tenets: the straight-ahead narrative, the easily grasped story-song.
Of course, one of the complaints about "old" country is that its simplicity seldom matches real life, and as if to answer this, Straightaways has ambivalence aplenty. "I've lost my burden/And I'm going home," Farrar sings on "Last Minute Shakedown" with a downward emphasis that's anything but celebratory.
Although Farrar for the most part goes for a low-energy delivery that might come from someone singing in his sleep, keystone phrases leap out at the listener and set the tone, sticking in the memory like the "Pesticide moon/Cold coffee and tears" of "No More Parades." It's a subtlety that's either admirable or irritating, depending on how hard you want to work at "getting" a song.
Take, for example, the first cut, "Caryatid Easy." It starts off with "I remember a faded summer"--interestingly enough, a nostalgic cast back into past days very much like the one that kicks off Wilco's Being There--but how important is it to the song that the listener knows that a caryatid is a supporting column that has the form of a woman, as at the ancient temple of Diana at Karyai? Its main import may be the willful obtuseness it indicates, a cant that will probably guarantee Son Volt a devoted cadre of fans and little else, despite Farrar's brilliance.