Monday, March 12, 2007

We'll Know When We Get There

When Uncle Tupelo divorced in 1994, a lot of their fans chose sides. On the one hand, there was Son Volt, Jay Farrar's band and the obvious No Depression torchbearers. On the other hand was Wilco, the slightly disheveled little brother, made up of the majority of the Uncle Tupelo members and arguably the bigger heart. Son Volt's first release, the classic Trace, came strongest out of the gate, picking up right where Uncle Tupelo's Anodyne had left off. Wilco's initial release, A.M., failed to yield a massive single like Trace's "Drown," but revealed Tweedy as a natural band leader with tons of potential. Somewhere along the way, Son Volt began to stall on its sameness, just as Wilco slowly went on to increasing levels of creative wonder. [Note: This is not the time or place to discuss Sky Blue Sky.] Farrar released the solo record Sebastopol (which I thought was brilliant) in 2001, but seemed to stall out himself shortly thereafter.

In 2005, Farrar dusted off the Son Volt brand and released Okemah And The Melody Of Riot, on which Jay was the only member of the original Son Volt. Honestly, it wasn't a record that I listened to more than a few times. It was decent, but nothing new, and the fact that I couldn't get it to load into my iTunes doomed it to the storage area of my record collection. Having actively committed to the other line of the Uncle Tupelo split, I figured Okemah represented the end of my diminishing Jay Farrar/Son Volt flirtation.

Then Son Volt released The Search last week, and even though the reviews haven't been overwhelming, with a work-related trip down to Valdosta and not a lot of new stuff to listen to, I felt drawn to see if anything might be going on. And I am most please to report that The Search is well worth the investment. From the get-go, you get the impression that the band has tapped into new inspiration. The album-opening "Slow Hearse" (even with its drum part nicked from Wilco's "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart") explores new artsy territory, while the trumpets in the "The Picture" provide a surprising release of that initial tension.

The record hits its stride with the must-have "Circadian Rhythm," with its haunting backwards guitar line, and the spacious "Beacon Soul," both of which have the sound that was once the bread and butter of R.E.M., bitterweet melodies that seem to be tied to the gothic South. Also not to be missed is the great duet with Shannon McNally on the longing country ballad "Highways and Cigarettes."

Jay may still give you predictably consistent melodies and unnecessarily obfuscatory lyrics, but the sound of The Search is pleasing nonetheless. The whole record is familiar without ever being boring, and Jay seems to have regained his stride with strong new musicians and a new palette with which to paint his tales of hard-living Americana. The Search moves across a throughly enjoyable landscape, and even though the recognizable signposts may have received a coat of paint or two, they still feel like home. And with the record comfortably loaded onto my iPod, it's already getting heavy rotation. Son Volt definitely deserves a second (or third) look.

MP3: Son Volt - "Circadian Rhythm" from The Search