Searching for a truer sound
Like it or not (and from all accounts they don't), the two artists who gave the late and much-lamented Uncle Tupelo its scope and direction--Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Son Volt's Jay Farrar--are bound together in peoples' minds, doomed to be forever compared much like another pair of co-ghosts, the Replacements' Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson.
Like Westerberg and Stinson, Tweedy and Farrar don't do a whole lot to dispel this kind of association when they play the same town within a week of each other, so here goes: While Tweedy seems determined to take his music outside of itself and into the territories first sketched out by heroes like the Byrds, the Beatles, and especially the Stones, Farrar seems to be burrowing inward. Although Son Volt still rocks and still celebrates, the band hews much closer to Uncle Tupelo's stark, almost antediluvian hillbilly sensibility.
It's the soundtrack to a long rainy drive through unfamiliar back country, with your doubts and dreams projected onto the slick road and dripping foliage that slides hissing past your windows. Trace, Son Volt's 1995 debut, uses the classic folkloric forms, which Tweedy and Farrar first fell in love with, to come up with a distillation of a uniquely American restlessness: the best wishes that are the core of the folksy "Windfall"--"May the wind take your troubles away"--or the town of St. Genevieve, whose flood damage mirrors the narrator's own trauma ("Nothing more than the traveling hands of time"). The crashing "Drown" assesses a partner's hapless self-sabotage: "You're causing it," Farrar sings in a chorus that bespeaks more than a couple of Lynyrd Skynyrd albums in his collection, but his advice is still "When in doubt, move on" or "Try to make it to the next time zone," as he sings on "Windfall."
Floodwaters that breach levees, tear-stained eyes, and a beach poisoned by hazardous material--Farrar employs a wide-ranging and almost constant series of water images. The water links Son Volt to the myths that we've built upon that traveling jones: the Mississippi River and the Erie Canal and their asphalt approximations, threads that will probably always run through our character and link us and our past in much the same way as our music does. Like mythical riverboat man Mike Fink and author Mark Twain, Farrar and Son Volt know what they sing of when they tell us that "the rhythm of the river will remain."
Son Volt plays Trees Tuesday, November 12.
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