'round the dial
Wednesday 20 August @ 11:47:00
by Tom Hallett
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Everybody was getting really loud, psychedelic, flashy; and we went the other way. This was never discussed, you understand, it was just a constant reaction through the years.”
—Robbie Robertson, The Band
SONG OF THE WEEK: “The Guitar Can’t Keep From Crying”
Terroir Blues (2003)
I’ve gotta think former Uncle Tupelo co-conspirator Jay Farrar would dig both the quote and the song kickin’ off this week’s edition of RTD. After all, he’s pretty much come to embody the spirit—if not the incredible group dynamics and interplay—of ’60s Americana practitioners/preservationists The Band, and there’s no doubt that the man absolutely exudes the essence of the (deep soul) blues that late Beatles axeman Harrison coaxed out in songs like the one above and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” And while Farrar’s old Uncle Tupelo partner Jeff Tweedy has gone on to soaring new sonic heights with Wilco, Jay’s music has become more and more stripped down and to-the-bone on everything he’s released since the demise of his post-Tupelo outfit, Son Volt.
Not that The Band’s music was exactly stripped down; despite Robertson’s quote, it was actually brimming over with tiny flourishes and aural nuances that seem to never stop manifesting themselves, no matter how many times you listen to one of their songs. They just simply stand on their own without a lot of extra sonic brush strokes and studio flim-flammery. And not that Farrar’s music is exactly completely stripped down, either—though between him and Tweedy, he’s by far the quieter of the two, partly because these days he chooses to perform solo or with ex-Blood Oranges guitarist Mark Spencer, and partly because, well, that’s just the kinda guy he is. On his latest, he opens his studio to multi-instrumentalist Spencer as well as a whole passel (for Jay, anyway) of musical cohorts, including bassist/engineer Mike Martin, lap steel player John Horton, old chum and pedal steel whiz Eric Heywood, percussionist Jan Wurster, cellist Janice Riemon, and flutist Lew Winery.
In fact, Jay’s music has, over the course of his three solo efforts and his contributions to the movie soundtrack The Slaughter Rule, come to incorporate a goodly amount of the electronic experimentation so many people are lauding Tweedy & Co. for using. It’s just that it’s not as brash, comical or garish as the Wilco stuff. And that’s no slam against Jeff—like the two most famous Beatles, I totally dig the pop sensibilities of Jeff Tweedy (McCartney), while knowing deep in my heart that Farrar (Lennon), hands down, has more of a chance of becoming a true-blue, serious musical icon a hundred years from now.
Put it this way: Jeff Tweedy uses Woody Guthrie lyrics to build songs. Jay Farrar IS a Woody Guthrie and doesn’t feel the need, or the impetus, or the calling, to try and interpret someone else’s song (sorry, Jeff, I really DO love the stuff ya did with Billy Bragg, but it’s really not saying anything—at least lyrically—that wasn’t already said some 40 or 50 years ago, is it?). Anyway, I’m not here to argue about who’s better, who’s best. When I want to cry in my beer or get up and dance, I crank up Wilco’s “Dash 7” or “I’m Always In Love.” When I want to sit around and do some deep ponderin’ or reflect on things happening in my life or the world around me, I throw on Son Volt’s “Ten Second News,” or “Barstow” off of Farrar’s Sebastopol album.
But Jay’s never really had much to say about the what, who, and why of his songs—like Dylan, he prefers to let the music do the talking. And actually, that’s part of what makes his repertoire so fascinating—it’s not easily digested, it’s not easily sussed, it’s not easily computed. Let’s be real, this is Jay Farrar, not “Short Attention Span Theater.” This is the soundtrack to the fall of a civilization, not a Saturday night dance collection. If you want mmm-bop sugar sugar boogie oogie oogie, Jay’s not your man. If you want a little challenge, a little brain rasslin’, and a little history (maybe even some predictions), then Farrar’s got you covered.
Terroir Blues (pronounced tehr-wah), his latest, is even more dense, enveloping and darkly beautiful than Sebastopol or the thirdshiftgrottoslack EP. Taking his cue from the soundtrack work he did on The Slaughter Rule, Jay plugs every possible point of escape from this album with between-song found sounds, backward tape loops, and what can only be called “space ragas.” Which is not too surprising, since (A), almost every song he’s ever written, from Uncle Tupelo’s “Still Be Around” and “Graveyard Shift” to Son Volt’s “Out Of The Picture” and “Been Set Free,” has been like an aural indie film, and (B), he’s a huge Byrds, Dylan, Stones and Neil Young fan, all acts/artists who’ve successfully connected the worlds of film and music over the years.
Roger McGuinn and the gang’s 1968 album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, which paired trippy tracks like the prophetically-titled “Change Is Now” and the truly pioneering cosmic meltdown of “Space Odyssey” (a full year before Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” mind you) with by-the-numbers Byrds classics like “Goin’ Back” and “Wasn’t Born To Follow,” was a significant sign o’ the times that so-called folk-rock, or country-rock, was feeling the infiltration of electronic sounds and experimentation.
Even more interesting are the bonus tracks included on the 1997 Columbia re-issue of the album. The long-buried instrumental cuts “Moog Raga” and “Universal Mind Decoder” are surely templates (even if they are unconscious ones) for Farrar’s post-Son Volt output. Dylan’s famously panned Self Portrait also featured pastiches of sonic hoo-hah, and his affinity for soundtrack work continued with Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid and on through modern times. The Stones, of course, had their infamous Rock And Roll Circus, as well as the lesser known Cocksucker Blues, and Neil Young’s music is about as close to hearing a movie in your head as you’ll ever get. In a recent interview with NadaMucho.com on the Internet, Farrar even goes so far as to refer to Terroir Blues as “technical” and an “extension” of Sebastopol.
Jay, unlike The Byrds and countless other ’60s and ’70s sound pioneers, wasn’t willing to wait (wasn’t born to FOLLOW!) for Artemis or Rhino to re-issue his albums in 20 or 30 years with all the keen ideas, alternate takes and buzzin’ brain-teasers he wanted his audience to hear NOW. So Terroir Blues is, in essence, a double album containing a total of 23 tracks, no less than four of which (“Hard Is The Fall,” “Hanging On To You,” “Heart On The Ground” and “No Rolling Back”) are alternate versions of songs you hear at the beginning of the record, while the between-track “intermission” instrumental number, “Space Junk,” pops up a whoppin’ six times.
Considering the adventurous spirit of this work, it’s no surprise that he’s left the relatively safe (read: confining) embrace of Artemis Records and released this album on his own label, the aptly named ACT/Resist. Am I going to be able to decode (thankfully, there’s no mention of the alternate language Esperanto on this release, so I’m off the hook there), demystify or “solve” the intricacies of this album for you, song by song? Absolutely not. What fun would that be? Besides, I have a feeling that, like The Byrds, Dylan and Neil Young’s albums, I’ll still be hearing new shit in this one for another couple of decades.
What I can do is give you a FEEL for this record. After all, what you really want to know is, should I shell out my hard-earned duckets for another solo album from Farrar? Assuming that you’re already at least a casual fan (or you’re really, really, bored and can’t find anything else to read), or that you’re at minimal a genuinely curious music hound who’s seeking info here, you probably already know what the main criticisms of Farrar’s solo (and let’s be frank, the two albums he did with Son Volt after 1995’s critically-acclaimed Trace) output are: that his songs are becoming more and more same-y and insular, and that his voice never really changes, and that he sounds like he’s dreaming his way through his aural stories, and that he’s stuck in a depressing, dark world that just doesn’t sound like it’s as much fun as Jeff Tweedy’s raucous, jangly, happy-hour-all-day groove-a-thon.
Well, all of that might be true to the untrained, or uncaring, or disinterested ear. If your favorite Dylan songs are the ones that you hear on KQ 60 times a month, or your favorite Stones songs are the ones where Mick (gasp) cusses, or you think The Byrds were better off without Gene Clark and Gram Parsons, then you already know Farrar’s not for you. When critics call his work cerebral, they mean that you have to USE YOUR BRAIN to get the maximum enjoyment—if you can call it that, maybe intellectual and spiritual rewards would be terms better suited for this music—from what Farrar has to say. And you have to be willing to admit that the whole world isn’t some happy, sunny, bright little hippie utopia. Things are really, really, really fucked up right now, and Jay isn’t going to stop channeling whatever muses he has because you’d like him to brighten your day or go back to singing about whiskey bottles, hangovers and barrooms because that’s still the main focus of your life—not that he’s judging anybody with these songs, it’s just clear as a bell that he’s left all of that behind (grow up, anybody? Not fun, but sometimes necessary for survival, eh?) and has more serious concerns on his mind.
Having a family, and especially a child, will do that for a person. Not everyone, but the majority of parents out there know that once you have another little soul in the world to protect, nurture and educate, your values and day-to-day concerns shift radically. Farrar, who’s fiercely paternal to his own offspring, is merely voicing through his music the legitimate concerns anybody who gives a damn about the state of planet Earth in the 21st Century has. And he does a mighty fine job attempting to document, dissect and comment on the turmoil, loss and societal denigration he sees around him.
So what does he have to say on Terroir Blues? In the past, he’s covered everything from spousal murder to environmental destruction to the fast-shrinking free world. This time, he’s not so up-front about his subjects—at least not in every case. He’s not exactly oblique, but he wants you to study on things some, and you won’t suss out the exact intention behind every song in one listen, or 20 for that matter. In the lead track, “No Rolling Back,” he gently reminds us, “we all want the best/for our own factional worlds/Behaves like gasoline/All this 21st century blood ...” then pleads, “deliver us from now ...”
The first “Space Junk,” a needling, inverted church organ-ish lick, wheedles its way in here, giving you time to soak up “No Rolling Back” and prepare for the oddly soothing, double-vocal-tracked number “Hard Is The Fall.” Here, Farrar laments that perhaps the end is coming too soon: “... hard is the fall, when your heart is brand new.” “Is this just a dream, or is it real?” he queries, and though it sure FEELS like a dream, with weepy pedal steel and soft, rhythmic strumming, the unshakeable reality of the lyrics belie their comforts.
“Fool King’s Crown” shreds into existence then, an aggravating, grating perversion of sonics that can only be described as SOUNDING like what kicking heroin FEELS like, then backs off with sitar-sounding slide guitar and what just may be the most damning indictment an American singer’s made of the current right wing takeover since Steve Earle’s “John Walker’s Blues.” “Fool King’s Crown gets passed around/Everybody wants to have it ...” he chimes, “Fool King’s Crown got watered down ... see how it mirrors/The inside’s familiar ...” More grating cold turkey music, then back into the almost child-like, nursery rhyme bounce of those guitars. Farrar claims that he’s never been too overt about his politics (though I think that may be a little misleading), but in the interview I mentioned earlier, he cops to a change in policy on Terroir Blues, saying that they may “trickle down” into the grooves of this album. He’s not making grand, sweeping statements like Dylan, The Byrds and Neil Young did back in their heyday, but you won’t find a more clear, concise, intelligent commentator in modern rock and roll than Jay Farrar, take my word for it.
“Cahokian” is a gorgeous, cello-enhanced love song that just can’t help but throw in a few references to the disintegrating world love is forced to endure in today: “I will wait for you in the green, green spaces,” he promises his lover, “wearing our post-industrial faces.” Not exactly “meet me under the old apple tree,” but what do you expect from “ ... a world gone mean?” Or, as Jay puts it here, surrounded by “a people undone.” Can’t think of a better phrase for America these days, myself. I started feeling undone long before Weezer made it a catchy little pop song, man. “A culture undone, vanished in the sun/From Mississippi on ...” Jay croons, and though he’s lamenting the past, there’s no doubt that he’s aware we’re all doomed to the same fate.
Farrar’s music is like reading today’s headlines, or tomorrow’s and yeah, it’s kinda scary. But through all the dire commentary and frank, sometimes bitter revelations, the music speaks for the beauty he still sees left around him; his child’s carefree grin, the fresh, bright morning sun, the comforting, safe confines of home. All we have left, he’s saying, is the knowledge of what we’re doing (and have done) and that’s the only thing, if anything, that can save us. “You don’t have to twist the knife,” he pleads in “Heart On The Ground,” “You don’t have to feel that way.” Here the old Son Volt guitar grind kicks in, lifting Farrar’s voice off the ground in a way I haven’t heard since his tenure with the legendary Boquist boys, and it’s a tasty sound indeed.
“Out On The Road” features a heart-stoppingly beautiful flute, a sound that reminds me of a cross between that bizarre background music playing during the outdoor scenes in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” and the middle break in Chicago’s “Colour My World,” backing caustic lyrics: “Ask the world for just one dance/You’re gonna find pain ...” “You been pushed before,” he urges on “All Of Your Might,” “... now push back with all of your might.” That’s about as incendiary as Jay’s revolution is going to get: He’s not going to incite riots, show up at the Republican Convention with signs and a bullhorn, or spam the White House with letters of indignant protest—he’s just gonna let it out and hope it makes its way to your ears: “Someday, I hope I feel the way you do/And someday, you feel a different way too ...” he shrugs, and that’s as confrontational as he’s going to get, as well.
“Who’s going to make a difference?” he asks in “Walk You Down,” and you can tell from his resigned tone of voice that he’s not really expecting an easy answer. But then, “There is an easy way around what’s in store,” he lets slip, “... contrast the dark/With force of will/Take the reins of change ...” As on “Out On The Road,” where he urges “ ... revolutions from within,” Jay knows that the days of the “Street Fightin’ Man” are over—it’s high time for the artists, visionaries, spiritualists and intelligencia of this country (and the world) to wrest the reins of power from the mindless, soulless, vapid fools who have us on the rapid rail to hell—and while he’s not (for who really can?) giving us any concrete answers here, he’s doing the next best thing: posing all the right questions. Maybe he’s answered some of them himself, playing these songs over and over in his head, in the studio and onstage, but he’s not going to interfere with your own choices and thought process. He’s merely giving you assurance that you’re not the only one, you’re not alone in your confusion, disgust, fear, shame and general feeling of helplessness.
Like I said in the beginning, this isn’t background music—although most of it (apart from the scathing intro to “Fool King’s Crown”) could ride quite easily at a low volume on your stereo while you cleaned house, or did your homework, or wrote those nice little letters to your senators and congressmen that you just know you should be writing. But that would be like using a copy of “The Old Man And The Sea” to hide the latest issue of “Archie’s Summer Fun Mag” in during class. Terroir Blues—and make no mistake about it, this music is the quintessential Blues, or music from the darkest part of the human soul—is a huge record in a lot of ways. It contains a shitload of songs, none of which seem interconnected at first listen but are anyway just by the fact that they’re all bridged by “Space Junk” (is that a poke at The Byrds, or what? Good shot, Jay!), and really are because they’re all seen (heard) through the eyes (ears) of the same author, who is a pretty accurate reflection, methinks, of the average intelligent, caring, future-looking American in the 21st Century.
It’s also monumental as a contemporary commentary on a dying society—call it fiddling while Rome burns if you want, but I think Jay genuinely longs for positive change and hopes you and I come along for the ride. We may not agree on everything, he’s saying, but here’s a glimpse of what I’ve seen traveling across this once-great land, and here’s what I think we might be able to do about it, together. Come along for the ride or stand by and watch it all go to hell—either way, Jay’s gonna do and say what he thinks he should, and if it took him a little longer to incorporate electronic experimentation into his music than it did his former pal Tweedy, well, keep in mind that it’s a different vibe completely—this music doesn’t cling to technology as a way to “experiment” or “freak out” or “get the kids’ attention,” it augments, strengthens, and updates a sound—the True American Music of the heart—that has outlived all of its progenitors, indeed, nearly all of its second and third generation flamekeepers.
Farrar laughs when the aforementioned interviewer asks him if he thinks it’s odd that he’s referred to as a “grandfather” of “alternative country.” Well, of course he’d laugh. Not only is that a completely ridiculous and misleading moniker, but it’s almost insulting for a guy his age. Hell, they waited until Neil Young was at least 40 before they started calling him “Grandpa Granola.” Can a guy just be young for a while, especially if his soul is already a couple centuries old? As for the “alternative country” movement, the more I read the more I understand that there’s ALWAYS been an alternative country movement: For every God-fearin,’ gospel-pickin’ group in 1840’s Appalachia, there was a hard-drinkin’ washtub band out behind some guy’s barn making up dirty lyrics to sacred songs and playing in tunings that had never been heard before.
In pre-World War II America, guys like Bob Wills took traditional country, or hillbilly, music and injected a shot of big city swing jazz into it—the sound became a Nashville staple, something it never would’ve done had an African American band come rollin’ into redneck country ready to swap licks with corn-fed white boys. In the ’50s, Hank Williams turned country music on its ear—not only depicting the hard-spun life actual fans of the genre lived, but living it himself so truly that he died doing it. Before Hank, it wasn’t cool to sing about bein’ a fall-down, head-knockin’ drunken lout. The examples proliferate from there, but suffice it to say that Jay Farrar is no more a grandfather of “alternative country” than Sid Griffin or Chuck Prophet or Alejandro Escovedo or Waylon and Willie or David Allen Coe or Neil Young or The Byrds or The Stones or Gram Parsons or, well, you get the point. What he is, is a living conduit to that Great Unnamed Something that Gram called Cosmic American Music—and every one of those people I mentioned above were (and are—even if they’re not Americans) conduits as well.
You don’t have to listen, just like you don’t have to watch the news or read the paper or check up on your neighbors or call your brother or take five minutes to make a child smile or write a quick note to somebody you know is havin’ a tough time. You can switch the channel to Spongebob Squarepants; you can read High Times instead of the New York Times; you can shelter yourself in a cocoon; you can ignore your friends and family and strangers in need. You can even sit idly by next Election Day and watch as money-hungry, hawkish monstrosities take over your country and slowly, inexorably pick apart every right, law, notion and credo you hold dear. Nobody here is in any position to judge you. But if you’re smart enough to listen to Jay Farrar’s music, and you’re curious enough to have sat through this term paper-length review of his latest album, and you’re HUMAN enough to know what we’re talkin’ about here, then there just might be a chance for us yet.
But it has to be me and you. And we gotta stick together, all for one and one for all, or we’ll surely watch the sun set on the world as we know it. There’s a reason Jay’s label is called ACT/Resist, ya know. He really means it. I think he says it best in “Hanging On To You”—“Runnin’ away from the day-to-day blues/Hope through hoops/Just makin’ it through/Singin’ low as we make our way ... hangin’ on to you is all I can do ...” (Advance notice!! Jay Farrar will play First Avenue’s Main Room on Wed., Sept. 24) That’s it for me this week—until next time, make yer own damn news.
Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for a cover story interview with Jay Farrar in the Sept. 17th issue of the Pulse by Rob van Alstyne.