One of last year’s most unexpected pleasures was getting knocked out by Son Volt‘s most recent album, American Central Dust. Just when I thought Jay Farrar had disappeared down a mumbly, monotonous rabbit hole, he totally won me back with country and rock and would you believe, country-rock? Yeah, I know it’s nothing particularly groundbreaking, but I don’t need much groundbreaking from this guy. When you construct the Great Wall of Tupelo, further innovation is unnecessary.
For my money, Farrar spent most of the last decade squandering the goodwill he’d earned in the previous decade. I heard way too much drone and not enough melody and dynamics. That said, perhaps the letdown was inevitable. Precious few musicians can match the Koufaxian five-album run of Uncle Tupelo’s four albums and Son Volt’s debut, Trace, Jay Farrar included. Thus, his move away from that rich legacy was an understandable effort at artistic redefinition on new terms. I didn’t care for much of it, but I get it, and respect the process.
Nevertheless, I submit a modest proposal for my fair readers. If anyone is willing to make me an hour-long comp of Farrar’s past decade — The Best Of The Aughties, if you will — I’m down. Maybe I need to listen to the output with fresh ears and in a new context. Public huzzahs will certainly follow for the creator of said “mixtape.” Unless it sucks. Then, the shaming shall follow. But hey, no pressure.
American Central Dust is such a welcome return to form. His immersion in the experimental folk-rock drone is complemented by what he does best, that wonderful intersection of country and rock. So, while “Down To The Wire” and “Sultana” aren’t my favorite songs, within the context of this album they’re worthy diversions that make perfect sense. Just when I think the album is losing its momentum, there’s a lyrical turn of phrase or weepy steel figure or crunchy guitar riff putting the root down. Speaking of roots …
THIS is why Jay Farrar was put on earth. The guy was born to sing country music. While he’s certainly earned the right to do whatever he damn well pleases, there’s no truer sound than his voice surrounded by a fiddle, steel guitar, high, keening vocal harmonies, and a lockdown country pocket. All present and accounted for. From a production standpoint, I like how Mark Spencer‘s steel guitar — an eight-string Fender pedal steel, like the one used by Sneaky Pete Kleinow with the Flying Burrito Brothers — is panned hard right, with Eleanor Whitmore‘s fiddle panned hard left (that’s her pictured left, rowwwr). The two instruments are essentially harmonizing with each other, not unlike the harmonies of Farrar and bassist, Andrew Duplantis.
Song of the year? It’s in the discussion.
“I was probably in more of a Neil Young vein as far as the guitar tuning I was using, and the repetitive chord progressions. Lyrically, I was thinking about our society’s reliance on fossil fuels and the whole economic structure that’s built on that. At the time, gas was hitting $5 a gallon, Son Volt was on tour, and it didn’t completely wreck our tour, but I imagine that (for) a lot of bands getting started out that it would.”
–Farrar in his hometown Riverfront Times, 7/7/09
The term “americana” gets thrown around a lot, but make no mistake, Dust is as americana as a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. I don’t necessarily mean in terms of genre identification, I mean that the album’s lyrical content is driven by distinctly American images. Beale Street, honky tonks, biker bars, the Fourth of July, and several American cities make guest appearances. There’s references to Leadbelly and Chuck Berry. Of course, the word “American” IS in the album title, so there’s that, too.
As Farrar notes, “Wheels” is a look at America’s reliance on fossil fuels, juxtaposing our road culture with that of decaying ancient Rome, and alluding to a Road Warrior-esque post-gasoline future. Cleverly, that grungy Neil Young guitar sound to which he refers … courtesy of former lead guitarist, Chris Masterson … mirrors the “turbine engines” of which he sings. Similarly, drummer Dave Bryson’s tom rolls add heavy atmosphere, as does Spencer’s wurlitzer … though maybe that’s a pedal steel run through a Leslie??? Pretty sure it’s a Wurlitzer, though.
If there is an irony at work here it’s that Farrar’s next musical project was a tribute to Jack Kerouac’s novel, Big Sur, done in collaboration with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie. Kerouac‘s breakthrough novel, of course, was On The Road, which posited the American road as a symbol of freedom and the gateway to wisdom and maturation. Hey, it was the ’50s. There were lots of crazy ideas back then.
“Lonely roads and freight trains will keep us sane.”
Speaking of which, “No Turning Back” is an ass-kicking, country-rock tribute to the road in the spirit of Mr. Kerouac. And like “Dust Of Daylight,” this is the kind of song that’s right in Farrar’s stylistic wheelhouse. So much so, in fact, it’s almost silly that he venture away from the country-rock sound for too long. I like the arrangement, with the rhythm section (drums, bass, and acoustic guitar) panned right and the instruments carrying the melody (wurlitzer and electric lead guitar) panned left. I’m curious if Masterson is playing a B-Bender here because the guitar sound has that distinctive bending, steely tone a la Clarence White. Whatever the case, it’s yet another highlight on one of 2009’s best releases.
Welcome back, Jay. It sounds like heaven.
While preparing this post, I stumbled across this amusing email interview with Farrar from last June. It’ll take you all of 2 minutes to finish, but my favorite part is when the author asks Jay about his listening habits. Naturally, given that his tastes run so close to mine, it would’ve been irresponsible for me NOT to create a separate playlist. After all, if it’s good enough for Jay Farrar and The Adios Lounge, it’s good enough for you. BTW, all notes below are mine.
Q: Do you have an iPod? Mind sharing the last five songs that you played (assuming it was on shuffle)?
One of my favorite concert moments from last year occurred in mid-May at Roadhouse Rags in Austin. Tortilla Flats was playing their standard tribute to Doug Sahm when midway through the set, who comes up to play a few songs, but Jay Farrar. Now, the bassist in Tortilla Flats is Andrew Duplantis, so it’s not like this collab was completely unexpected. Just mildly unexpected. And totally fistpump.
I’m guessing “Kat” is on Farrar’s list because that was one of the songs they played together. What other Doug songs made the cut that night? According to my archives:
- I’m Just Tired Of Getting Burned
- At The Crossroads
- I’m Not That Kat Anymore
- Give Back The Key To My Heart (w/Jay on “cocaine” verse)