Son Volt: Wide Swing Tremolo

Son Volt
Wide Swing Tremolo
Warner Bros

SON VOLT'S JAY Farrar may be the most fatalistic rock 'n' roller since the John Fogerty of "Who'll Stop the Rain." When bad things come his way, the poor guy doesn't necessarily take it hard, because he always seems to be expecting the worst anyway. Like Fogerty, he sometimes conveys the assurance (and vocabulary) of an Old Testament prophet, and, also like Fogerty, his fatalism often expresses itself through weather imagery. But while Fogerty's bad moons rising and unstoppable rains were clearly metaphorical, Farrar's take is often literal.

Son Volt documents a world where life's evanescence is played out against a backdrop of natural forces. The Farrar we know today emerged fully on Uncle Tupelo's 1993 swan song, Anodyne, a record heavily influenced by two natural events--the floods of 1992 that ravaged the band's Midwestern home front, and the earthquake scare along a New Madrid fault line that went right through their front door.

The folk fantasies and vague Americana he's authored on subsequent records aren't nearly as conservative or nostalgic as a lot of urbane, East Coast rock critics would have you believe. I do wish, though, that Farrar would take a cue from his geographical and musical comrades the Bottle Rockets and crack a joke every now and then, or at least give some indication that the riverside landscapes he obsesses over are inhabited by real people living real lives. Then again, maybe it's hard to notice those details from the window of your car. If anything, Son Volt makes geographically specific road music. "From Memphis to New Orleans," Farrar sings on "Creosote," from 1997's Straightaways. You might as well extend that trek north to the small western Illinois towns that Farrar and drummer Mike Heidorn are from and where Wide Swing Tremolo was recorded, and continue up the Mississippi to the Twin Cities where Farrar picked up bandmates Jim and Dave Boquist.

So it's unfortunate for Farrar and Co. that Lucinda Williams happened to craft a masterpiece out of the same subject matter (or at least the Southern half of the journey) earlier this year. Where Williams's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road features lyrics so precise and evocative that they rival Chuck Berry, Wide Swing Tremolo finds Farrar reaching new levels of indecipherability. If you can figure out what "unveilings free from saturation/Departures raised with no masquerading" means, then you've got me beat. Farrar's big voice and his band's down-home elegance have always masked his lyrical deficiencies, and, from the Stonesy blast of the opening "Straightface" to the surprisingly loose shuffle of the closing "Blind Hope," they continue to deliver the goods. But, sadly, Wide Swing Tremolo finds Farrar's lyrics flapping in the same wind he once claimed would take our troubles away.

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