Jay Farrar leads his new band, Son Volt, into a bright new future with their Warner Bros. debut, Trace

by Richard Byrne.

Riverfront Times of St. Louis, September 20-26, 1995
Reprinted without permission
Copyright 1995 Hartmann Publishing Co./Riverfront Times.

     In early August, I finally got a chance to log on to America OnLine's "No Depression" folder. "No Depression" is a bulletin board that takes its name from Uncle Tupelo's 1990 debut LP and is devoted entirely to the roots-rock genre that Belleville's favorite sons helped spearhead in the early part of this decade.

     "No Depression" both delighted and freaked me out. The obsessive interest was kinda weird. Chicago Reader columnist Bill Wyman weighed in on-line with a catty "report" from former Tupelo and current Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy's wedding. Other chatty types were talking about Blue Mountain and the Bottle Rockets.

     The dominant chatter, however, was about former Tupe Jay Farrar's new band, Son Volt. Not only had copies of Farrar's first LP with Son Volt -- Trace -- been circulating for a few months, but Son Volt had finally made a series of live appearances in the Midwest.

     Much of the discussion centered around interpreting the lyrics on Trace. Was this song about Uncle Tupelo? What was that song about? Which band is better -- Wilco or Son Volt?

     Chiefly, however, there were raves for both "Trace" and the live shows among the core constituency that made Uncle Tupelo, the Jayhawks and the Bottle Rockets so popular. A few dreamers saying that they wished that Wilco's A.M. and Son Volt's Trace were one LP.

     But mostly there were raves.

     Let me add my voice to theirs.

     Although adding a few of A.M.'s radio-friendly tracks would make Trace sound more than a little bit like an Uncle Tupelo LP, Son Volt's debut really doesn't need those contributions. It's something else entirely -- and something wholly fulfilling -- without them.

     Trace is a long love poem to the Mississippi River, with passages of sheer poetic intensity. It's also an emotional chronicle of the breakup of Farrar's former band. It touches on a variety of musical forms -- from alt-rock to country to folk -- without ever stopping long enough to be defined by any of them. It speaks in voices both loud and soft, both angry and mournful, both tender and rough. Along with Tricky's Maxinquaye -- a British rap and trip-hop LP that finds a similar poetry and invention in completely different musical forms -- I've found Trace to be the best LP that I've heard this year, with Farrar's finest work since Still Feel Gone.

When in doubt, move on
No need to sort it out.
-- "Drown"

     The Uncle Tupelo story is well known by now. Formed in Belleville, Ill., by Farrar, Tweedy and drummer Mike Heidorn (who played together in an earlier combo called the Primitives), Uncle Tupelo grew from its roots playing St. Louis bars in the late 1980's to a position as a regional, and then national, rock powerhouse with four LPs: No Depression (1990), Still Feel Gone (1991), March 16-20, 1992 (1992) and its major-label debut on Sire/Reprise, Anodyne (1993).

     The success did come at some cost, however. Heidorn left Uncle Tupelo in 1992, and differences between Farrar and Tweedy eventually split up the group -- which had been augumented with a new drummer, bassist, and multi-instumentalist for Anodyne -- in the spring of 1994.

     As Tweedy took the nucleus of the final Uncle Tupelo lineup to record almost immediately for Sire/Reprise under the name Wilco, Farrar took a different route with Son Volt, taking time and writing songs in the months right after the band's demise.

     "Really," says Farrar, "all the songs were written in a three-month period -- May, June and July of last year."

     Those months were right after Tupelo dissolved, and Farrar admits that the breakup and its aftermath colored the lyrics a bit.

     "At the time the songs were written," he says, "I'd been playing with the band for six or seven years. It was the first time in a while athat I'd been doing essentially nothing. There was a bit of alienation."

     It's an alienation that you can hear on songs like the first single from Trace, "Drown". It's a song that's studded with jagged blasts of blame, sorrow, frustration and destruction:

I want to find the right side of you.
If living right is easy,
Then what goes wrong --
You're causing it
To Drown.

     There are other songs -- mostly as the LP winds to its end -- that also showcase the alienation. "Loose String" is a catchy, shuffling ode to being an outcast, with all the lumps and its pleasures:

Loose string
You find the pieces don't fit in ...
Too much living is no way to die.

     The alienation takes a starker, and broader tone on a song like "Out of the Picture" -- a mournful dirge that begins with what seems to be a comment on the impersonal and captive nature of fame, and then broadens its scope to take in others caged by the same paradigm:

Take away this Columbus Day
No more bones on display
Black Hawk never had a say
Just take him out of the picture.

     The energy created by the collision of alienation and art can be cleansing and even energizing. In Farrar's case, it meant that he wasn't out of the picture for very long.

     He plucked new pal Jim Boquist -- a bassist for Uncle Tupelo's touring companion Joe Henry -- for his new band, and took on Jim's multi-instrumentalist brother Dave as the second member.

     "They definitely add color," says Farrar of the Boquist brothers. "Especially Dave, playing all those different instruments."

     Trace grew out of the Boquists and Farrar adapting four-track acoustic demos of his new songs. "It was mostly acoustic based," Farrar says. "So it wasn't pre-formed, what shape the songs would take."

     The last piece of the puzzle fell into place when Farrar added former Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn to the group, and the foursome recorded Trace in a studio in Northfield, Minnesota, in late 1994.

     "He does," says Farrar of his once and former drummer, "add a certain atmosphere."

     For his part, Heidorn says that he is "very pleased to be back in this business." The hardest thing, he adds, "is getting back the confidence in playing. I didn't have that much time to prep for the album."

     It's hard for the roots-rock crowd not to be pleased that Heidorn is back. In my own view, Uncle Tupelo was not the same band after Heidorn left, and his return to the kit to pound out his highly idiosyncratic -- but always dead-on -- beat for Son Volt is welcome news.

St. Genevieve
Can hold back the water
But the saints don't bother
With a tear-stained eye.
--"Tear Stained Eye"

     There are certainly highly personal statements to be found on Trace. The hurt and alienation are painted too vividly, and underscored by too rich a tapestry of sound, not to be genuine. (Not to mention the way that Farrar and Son Volt take complete possession of Ronnie Wood's "Mystifies Me" on Trace's final cut.)

     But what places this album on a higher plain is the way that Farrar seamlessly weaves the personal into a larger context. I've already alluded to this uncanny knack in Farrar's new songs in discussing "Out of the Picture," and Farrar does it even more skillfully in the first six songs of Trace, songs that weave the sights, sounds and even the mud of the river into a brilliant landscape.

     "It just sort of happened," says Farrar of this mix. "That St. Genevieve line came from seeing it on CNN."

     There are many such moments on Trace. On "Live Free," Farrar finds that the "rhythm of the river" is more powerful and insistent than the lives of those who live along its banks. The somber "Ten Second News" tips its hat toward the poisons that have seeped into both the river and public consciousness at Times Beach:

Driving down sunny 44 highway
There's a beach there known for cancer
Waiting to happen.

     Not all of these revelations from the river are negative, however. On the album's buoyant country-folk opener, "Windfall," the wind and old-time country that Farrar finds on his AM country station can lift even the burdens of the world. "Windfall" has the feel of a Beach Boys song for the great Midwestern plains. Dave Boquist's fiddle cozies up to the verses, and a yearning harmony by Farrar and Jim Boquist on the Chours drives home the point:

Catching an all-night station
Somewhere in Louisiana
Sounds like 1963, but for now
It sounds like heaven.
May the wind take your troubles away
Both feet on the floor
Two hands on the wheel
May the wind take your troubles away.

     "I was doing that when I was driving around," Farrar says of his AM epiphany. "It's hard to find something to listen to, especially on FM." He adds that "Windfall" is a nod to a particular station in Louisiana "that does a truck-driving show from midnight to 6, and plays a lot of older country songs. That's what I've been listening to -- old country and old blues."

     Much of Trace has a spirit and a substance that many of the great American novels of this century have. There's the feel for traveling America's highways that one finds in Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and the lush poetry and obsession with mortality and fame that one finds in Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel and Of Time and the River.

     Of course, it's a cliche to say that one wants to write the Great American Novel. But what Jay Farrar and Son Volt have made is one great American rock album -- one that might, as years pass, rate with the classics: the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, The Band's Music from Big Pink, Talking Heads' Remain in Light, The Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime, Husker Du's New Day Rising and R.E.M.'s Life's Rich Pageant.

     Yes, Trace might be that good.

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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)