America's historical tragedies and triumphs exert a powerful influence on its greatest songwriters. There is little surprise in that fact: God and the Devil battle it out from sea to shining sea on nearly every page of American history. But in the hands of musicians, tales from this most uncivil war are forged into potent and poetic myths: A hellhound on a blues singer's trail. Injustices mourned by a man who wears black. Hattie Carroll and the Hurricane. The despair of dust bowls and a lack of do-re-mi.
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Throughout his career, Jay Farrar has embraced those myths and shaped new ones. As a founder of alternative country pioneers Uncle Tupelo, as a solo artist, and as the leader of Son Volt, his work often seeks out the ghosts of America's discordant or forgotten past, converses at length with them, and writes songs that stake a claim to a better future.
That American legacy of sin and salvation stands at the center of Son Volt's new record, Okemah (pronounced OH-KEE-MAH) and the Melody of Riot (Transmit Sound/Sony BMG). As the twelve new songs on Okemah swing from commotion to contemplation, they remain anchored in Farrar's passionate questioning of history to find words to articulate present calamities. His songs snatch eternal verities from the flames of terrorism and the shadows of political despair and believe that hope will trump fears.
In keeping with that lyrical interrogation of past and present, the music on Okemah and the Melody of Riot finds Farrar revisiting the sounds of his previous work with increased fluency and assurance. Listeners who admired the ferocious guitar attack of Uncle Tupelo songs such as "Chickamauga" (from Anodyne) or Son Volt's "Straightface" (Wide swing Tremolo) will revel in Okemah's turn back toward rock on tunes like "Jet Pilot" or "Who." Those who found consolation or inspiration in Farrar compositions such as melodic lilt of "Still Be Around" (from Uncle Tupelo's second record, Still Feel Gone) or the warm lyricism of "Windfall" (the first song on Son Volt's debut, Trace) will find those qualities in Okemah tracks like "6 String Belief" or "World Waits for You."
Indeed, coming hard on the heels of a Son Volt compilation culled from the band's first three records (A Retrospective 1995-2000 on Rhino Records), the time is right for a new record from a distinguished band.
In many ways, Okemah and the Melody of Riot is a return to familiar haunts for Farrar after two distinguished and diversified solo records Sebastopol and Terroir Blues and an EP and live record (Thirdshiftgrottoslack and Stone Steel and Bright Lights) that drew from those sessions and solo records.
On Sebastopol and Terroir Blues, Farrar tinkered with song structures and off-beat tunings, and experimented with instruments and tape loops. In part, he says, the reformation of Son Volt was a chance to change up. "After having done two primarily acoustic-oriented solo records and a lot of acoustic touring for several years," says Farrar, "I was ready to get back to playing electric. I wanted the solo records to be open-ended, open to trying out different sounds, different approaches. With this Son Volt record, I wanted to get back to the fundamentals."
Farrar picked up the Son Volt thread again with three new musicians Brad Rice (guitar), Andrew Duplantis (bass) and Dave Bryson (drums) along with assists from Eric Heywood (pedal steel), John Horton (slide guitar), and Mark Spencer (slide guitar, slide dulcimer, organ and backing vocals.)
In late 2004, when the previous incarnation of the band chose not to regroup again after recording the song "Sometimes" for the Alejandro Escovedo benefit/tribute Por Vida, a new team coalesced rather quickly round the Son Volt banner. Farrar observes that drummer Dave Bryson, formerly with DC alt-country rockers Canyon, was a holdover from Farrar's 2003 tour with that band that resulted in Stone, Steel and Bright Lights, and points to an earlier connection with bassist Andrew DuPlantis, who opened some shows for Son Volt in 1997. "We did a version of the Beatles 'Rain' once or twice on those dates," recalls Farrar. "So we had some previous playing time."
After adding guitarist Brad Rice (who has played with a diverse group of artists, including The Backsliders, Ryan Adams and Tift Merritt), the band settled into the Okemah sessions in St. Louis, Missouri which were simultaneously webcast on Jay Farrar's website (www.jayfarrar.net) as the record was made.
What hardcore Son Volt fans saw on the web and will hear when they slide Okemah and the Melody of Riot into rotation is a successful restoration of the warmth and spontaneity of the Son Volt's first three records. On Okemah and the Melody of Riot, says Farrar, he aimed to create "a live feel, just trying to capture the moment when all the players are firing on all cylinders and the songs come together. So many records now are made with an artist, an engineer and a computer. I wanted this record to be the antithesis of that."
Farrar asked a lot from his new recruits to the group particularly in their flexibility and adaptability in a live setting. Okemah and the Melody of Riot veers from the flat-out ringing rock of "Afterglow 61" to the luscious layers of organ and harmony on the shuffling "Gramophone" to the somber smoky reflections of "Ipecac." He lays much of the results in getting it right to the band that he assembled.
"They all brought a considerable amount of musical experience with them," says Farrar. "We did a lot of live tracking, which can be difficult, but their familiarity with the process and confidence in their abilities made it happen."
"There's no reason to feel downhearted
There's music in the wheels it's there to be found."
-- Son Volt, "Afterglow 61"
There is a stinging critique of the bitter malaise and cynicism of contemporary America in the foreground of Okemah and the Melody of Riot. There are also bitter meditations on the tragedies of the last few years of American life in the grooves of Son Volt's new record. Yet, much like the end of the myth of Pandora's box, Jay Farrar's songs find hope beneath the whirlwind of violence and hate that has been unleashed in the nation in recent years in music, in action, and in remembrance.
This faith in the vitality of people and music in the face suffering is a strand that runs through Farrar's entire career. Much of his early work with Uncle Tupelo sketched out the sharp despair and moral exhaustion of Ronald Reagan's America as seen from the factories, farms and barstools of the Midwest. The politics of that music were pungent, potent and highly local as were its rehabitations of classic folk and country tunes on that band's largely-acoustic classic March 16-22, 1992, produced by R.E. M.'s Peter Buck.
With Son Volt and on his solo records, Farrar's horizons expanded, taking in vaster landscapes and lyrical vistas. Okemah and the Melody of Riot is no different in this respect. The record's title nods to the Oklahoma town of Okemah, the birthplace one of America's most widely-traveled and beloved minstrels: Woody Guthrie. In the record's opening track, "Bandages and Scars," Farrar sings that "the words of Woody Guthrie" are "ringing in my head."
Guthrie's powerful words not only tarred and lampooned the corrupt bosses of his time and brought to vivid life the suffering of laborers, but they also spoke of America's natural majesty and the power of its people when united in unions or in opposition to the politics of hate and war.
Woody Guthrie was an early favorite, Farrar observes: "Both of my parents appreciated Woody Guthrie and passed that appreciation along to me. Now both of my kids like his music as well. My son requested "This Land is Your Land" every day for a year or more. That's primarily what has kept Woody in my consciousness." He even recalls a pilgrimage that he made in the early 1990s with members of another Midwestern band, the Bottle Rockets, where a statue of Guthrie still stands.
On Okemah and the Melody of Riot, Farrar's lyrical concerns echo the broad expanses covered by Guthrie and range almost as widely. "Afterglow 61" travels that famous U.S. highway, finding Mark Twain and Leadbelly out on the road with Bob Dylan and hearing the music sparked by travels literal and metaphorical. At times, on songs such as "Ipecac" and "Atmosphere," Farrar finds savage poetry in the vast tragedies of America's recent past and speaks angrily of "madmen on both sides of the fence" and a "happy hour" that turns "hearts to dust." At other moments, such as "Gramophone," Farrar finds warmth and luster in the joyous music heritage and low-tech pleasures of the past, where a "vinyl disc" still has the the "power to hypnotize" and "legends through sound survive.
Yet in the midst of dazzling lyrical imagery, Farrar also finds voices that break through with stark simplicity. The scathing sarcasm of "Jet Pilot" summons up an anger that may remind the listener of John Fogerty's "Fortunate Son" Creedence Clearwater Revival's classic salvo about how America's privileged few avoid the wars created in their own interests. "I'd like Jet Pilot' to be thought of more as an allegory," says Farrar. "It could be applied to every leader that comes along."
As Okemah and the Melody of Riot unfolds, the twin engines of melody and prosody take the listener deeper into the complicated weave of American life. On songs such as "Medication" and the closing song and its immediate reprise, "World Waits for You," Farrar's poetical vision stretches out beyond the past and beyond politics into stark and tender meditations on unsatisfied spiritual hunger and the healing powers of faith and belief in others and one's own self.
On "Medication," Farrar's lyrics depict the manufactured speeding-up and slowing down of life and the artificial highs on offer in a multitude of the culture's bazaars against a soundscape where maracas insistently hiss and weave through the delicately-rippling percussion of Mark Spencer's slide dulcimer, which is alchemically transmuted to resemble both the trippy aura of a sitar and the percussive hypnotism of a tabla.
The two versions of "World Waits for You" that close the album also marry sound and sense On the first version, a ghostly piano chimes perfectly behind Farrar's fragile ode to the potential of men and women to find inner strength to surmount obstacles. In the reprise of the song, that same fragile melody is powered by a surge in tempo and instrumentation. The hope of the song blossoms powerfully into reality.
Okemah and the Melody of Riot is a record that compels listeners to reflect on what's happened in the past five years since Son Volt's last record. Where songs like "Gramophone" and "Afterglow 61" look back to the strengths of tradition and history, songs such as "6 String Belief" and "Bandages and Scars" challenge listeners to take that inheritance and change the future for the better.
The twelve songs on Son Volt's new record rise to the request that Farrar makes at the beginning of its final song, "World Waits for You": In a moment where many ask their music to comfort them with lies, Okemah and the Melody of Riot opts instead to trumpet harder lyrical and musical truths.
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