Out There

Tupelo honey

Weird Tales
Golden Smog
Rykodisc

Wide Swing Tremolo
Son Volt
Warner Bros.

It's far easier to like Jeff Tweedy's songs than those written by his old friend and partner Jay Farrar. That's because they're written for you, about you, to you; they come at you with open arms. Whether performing with his own band, Wilco, or co-fronting Golden Smog with the likes of the Jayhawks' Gary Louris and Soul Asylum's Dan Murphy, Tweedy hides nothing, because his voice--gruff, fragile, that of a pop singer who wishes he could go deep--offers no corner around which to hide. Farrar, it seems, could care less about what you need. His songs exist for him, as a soundtrack to this never-ending road trip he seems to be on, going from here to there to nowhere at all. Three post-Uncle Tupelo albums on, and Farrar's still "Driving the View" on "Streets That Time Walks." When's the last time he had the oil changed?

But Wide Swing Tremolo is by far the least claustrophobic of Son Volt's albums. "Straightface" opens with a welcome blast of cold wind, guitars whining like Skynyrd on a car stereo, Farrar's voice distorted till it's barely recognizable; "Flow" recalls the giddy bash-and-pop glory that made Tupelo's first two records such revelations; and the dreamy "Dead Man's Clothes" is almost psychedelic, its guitars intertwining like two lovers holding hands on a first date. Finally, the songs all don't sound the same, and Farrar seems to have traded in his scowl for what might even be a grin. It's never more evident than when he rewrites the entire Byrds catalog on "Medicine Hat," and you can almost hear the man enjoying himself.

Yet he's still a thousand miles away from writing a song as simple, and as affecting, as Tweedy's "Please Tell My Brother," which sounds not so different from the Woody Guthrie songs he and Billy Bragg released earlier this year. "When I think about her, the skies are blue / Please tell my sister I miss her too," sings Tweedy in the bittersweet voice of a man separated from his family. By all rights, all the songs on Weird Tales ought to be throwaways--the first two Smog albums were full of covers and last-minute add-ons--but Tweedy, Louris, Murphy, and new Smogger Jody Stephens have crafted an astonishingly coherent, canny, and ultimately poignant disc that splits the difference between the Jayhawks' deep-dark country-rock ("White Shell Road") and Wilco's pet-sound pop (the astonishing "All the Same to Me"). The highlight is the Stephens-Louris-Tweedy-written "Fear of Falling," if only because it's like getting Lennon, McCartney, and God for the price of one.

--Robert Wilonsky

 
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