IN A TIME when erstwhile purists like the Jayhawks are behaving like the Beatles and Will "Palace Music" Oldham is buying beat boxes at junk shops, Jay Farrar tends to come off as something of a prude. His band, Son Volt, is to the insurgent country movement what the coal workers Farrar has written about were to their era: discards struggling to fight off change with a faith in the nobility of the way things were. But as he demonstrates to some degree on Son Volt's latest, Straightaways, it's not easy even for a throwback like Farrar to shield himself from the winds of change. "I hear the beat of a thousand kinds of drums," he sings with some surprise on "Picking up the Signal," as his band riffs on a country-punk reduction Farrar might as well patent. "Picking Up the signal, right here/Right here after all."
Spotting aliens on your radar, however, is a far cry from inviting them onto the porch to jam. Relative to a career that's seen its share of sonic evolution, the most notable being Uncle Tupelo's mid-career shift from rowdy, backwoods punk to acoustic country-folk, Farrar isn't much for stylistic movement. Despite its subtle allusions to change, Straightaways adheres to strict boundaries.
Like his many disparate idols, Farrar mines depression for its colorful psychodrama; he evades happiness not so much out of cynicism but because he dreads losing his edge. "It's not easy to change/Not losing this thirst," he moans on "Last Minute Shakedown," a gorgeous acoustic ballad whose achy, mournful tone is reflected everywhere on Straightaways, from the amped-up opener, "Caryatid Easy," to "Way Down Watson," the lonesome dirge that closes it off. That the pitch never seems to change has its drawbacks; if you listen only to the surfaces of the music, Straightaways sounds like one long song.
But underneath it all is a band that's found nuance is its greatest gift. In Dave Boquist Son Volt has the perfect, unpretentious instrumentalist for Farrar to play against, allowing the singer the space to hang onto words till that last moment, like he's fearful of letting them go. On "No More Parades," crooning over the gentle pluck of a banjo and the steady churn of his own guitar, Farrar sets a lucid scene while still leaving evocative gaps. The story he tells is of people he's known who may or may not be as virtuous as he'd like. With little audible sadness he sings, "That's the way the hands turn." And while that simple acceptance hardly qualifies as a bold step for modern music, for Farrar it could be a sign of a burgeoning perspective.
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