Jay Farrar’s voice has always been a thing of unassuming beauty, a squeaky yet articulate vehicle for earnest tales of death, drugs and dreams. The tracks on his newest Son Volt release, The Search, find Jay hitting his stride again after a few not-so-great albums brimming with hesitant lyrics. With the addition of a keyboardist, Derry Deborja, this effort sustains a more melodic undertone awash with organ and piano. The brief starter track, “Slow Hearse”, thoughtfully introduces the piano and then plunges directly into a hearty tambourine-shaking track, “The Picture”, a la early Wilcoan style. Son Volt adds their own special grassy horns and upbeat drive, appealing them as the more authentic reproduction of the former, and much hailed, Uncle Tupelo.
(*If you aren’t familiar with the history of this band I’ve been so gracious to include this short recap: Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy were in a band called Uncle Tupelo with several other members. Uncle Tupelo is considered the seminal alt-country band and was revered among tradition-minded country, Americana and even punk fans. They melded the unrefined honesty of country with the individualistic wrath of punk. Citing creative differences Tweedy and Farrar split and each took with them members of Uncle Tupelo to form their own bands, Wilco and Son Volt respectively.)
“Action” wah-wahs its guitars into a lazy organ infused tune that sounds fairly diluted. It almost feels like a bad radio rock song that your mom adores because it sounds like . Neil Youngin’ it around (as if we could ignore this total obvious influence), Jay Farrar may have reached a happy medium between aching lyrics, solid guitar work and a tight, comfortable rhythm section on his newest.
The title track, “The Search”, stands as one of the weakest on the album. Built on pounding arena rock drums, indulgent guitar solos and Wallflowers-esque organ movements it just feels trite. I’ve always liked Uncle Tupelo, Wilco and even Son Volt’s Trace, but listening to this new album makes me feel old. I’m a broke down Dad, sitting shirtless and sweaty on the porch after mowing the lawn, gulping a Budweiser and tapping my foot to the radio.
“Automatic Society” brings us the all-familiar comfort of a steel guitar but beats us down with a weak, and endlessly repeating, chorus. The steel guitar is a key instrument on this album, though. Jay Farrar’s voice fits right inside the twang and tonk of its strings, and with it brings out the strongest track on the album, “Methamphetamine”. His swelling dissolute voice finds its home, bringing back the wrenching sound of earlier Son Volt.
There are a lot of misses on The Search and not a lot of wows, but on the few slightly standout gems you’re reminded of what the old Son Volt was like….and what the great Uncle Tupelo did for alt-country, and popular music as a whole. I want to like this album, and I do – for a couple of tracks anyway. I like Jay Farrar’s lyrics and I like his voice. But that doesn’t mean that I have to like this new, adult contemporary, radio rock version of Jay Farrar. I can like him on Trace, and in Uncle Tupelo, and as an idea of a man that helped shape the modern genre of alternative country.
And what’s with that lame ass cover art anyway?