Since seminal alt-country band Uncle Tupelo broke up in 1994, the critics’ line has been that bassist Jeff Tweedy’s next band Wilco was much more experimental, while singer-guitarist Jay Farrar’s Son Volt kept the Americana sound’s fire burning.
But with Son Volt’s release of its new album “The Search” in March, that clearly is no longer the case.
(Legacy; US: 6 Mar 2007; UK: Available as import)
The disc, Son Volt’s fifth overall and second since Farrar revived the band with 2005’s “Okemah and the Melody of Riot,” teems with elements no one would expect on a Son Volt record: Its 14 tracks include keyboards, guitar pedal loops and - on the first single, “The Picture” - even horns.
The result has given the group its highest-charting disc since 1997’s “Straightaways,” and even put it in Billboard’s Top 10 independent albums.
But to hear Farrar tell it, the disc simply continues his journey through a musical career and the changes that come with it.
“I think the main inspiration was to kind of do something a bit different than the previous record,” Farrar says in a telephone interview from a rehearsal in St. Louis during a short break on a tour that started March 26.
He said the emphasis for “Okemah and the Melody of Riot” was electric guitar - a response to four years of doing only solo shows, “where it’s kind of more acoustic-based.”
But for “The Search,” the palate was cleansed, Farrar says.
“I think the inclination was just to kind of see where else things could go,” he says in a measured, deliberate tone. “I was doing more writing on piano, and there were also more songs this time around. There were 22 total that were recorded at the sessions. So it just kind of allowed things to expand in different directions.”
If that’s surprising, remember this is the Farrar who, when re-forming Son Volt after a five-year hiatus in 2003, balked at demands by band members - former Uncle Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn and Jim and Dave Boquist - and simply built a new band around himself.
“I felt very comfortable with it,” he says. “I mean, I started out, essentially, with the idea of a band, naming them before there was anyone else involved. So I wanted to continue on with the name and the aesthetic. And the current lineup and band chemistry is very good.”
That lineup now has Chris Masterson on guitar - he replaced Brad Rice, who recorded the album but left to tour with Keith Urban - Dave Bryson on drums, Andrew Duplantis on bass and Derry DeBorja on keyboards.
Told that a reviewer called the new Son Volt “a swaggering rock band,” the famously subdued Farrar chuckles, “Sounds like descriptive terminology for pirates. I guess I can’t dispute what someone else says, but I don’t necessarily think of it that way.”
He hesitates to describe his own music - “That’s kind of putting limitations on what it can be, to actually put a descriptive term to it” - but says that with “The Search” he “came to the realization that I was probably drawing more from what would be considered `Rock 101’ sources - The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. And I think The Rolling Stones were probably the inspiration for trying out horns.”
Told that the horns on “The Picture” recall those on The Stones’ “It’s a Bitch,” he applauds the recognition. “We actually were doing that song live for a while,” he says.
All that seems quite a departure for someone so closely affiliated with alt-country. When Uncle Tupelo first burst out of Belleville, Ill., with its 1990 album “No Depression,” critics raved over the way the group wedded punk sensibilities with country instrumentations, and dubbed it a new genre.
After three more discs of often-brilliant music, an acrimonious split between Farrar and Tweedy gave birth to Wilco and Son Volt, which released 1995’s “Trace” to critical raves. But slow sales for it and two follow-ups - “Straightaways and 1998’s “Wide Swing Tremolo,” both blends of rootsy rock and acoustic - and the band was dropped by Warner Brothers.
Farrar became a father and recorded several solo discs, but said he longed for the band dynamic and revived Son Volt. But after “Okemah and the Melody of Riot,” he again grew restless and in October released an album, “Death Songs for the Living,” as Gob Iron, a side-project duo with Anders Parker of Varnaline. They also did a short tour.
One thing that hasn’t changed about Son Volt is Farrar’s literate lyrics, which on “The Search” also carry more political and occasionally apocalyptic undercurrent. “The Picture” speaks of “Hurricanes in December, earthquakes in the heartland,” and says “war is profit and profit is war.”
Farrar explains that as he has aged - he’s now 40 - he has “probably embraced more of a melodic sense or sensibility, which in turn often represents a more optimistic outlook.”
“But still I probably read the paper too much, you know?” he says, laughing again. “That sort of infuses the writing with more doom and gloom.”
But then he adds, “I do feel compelled to just throw some ideas out there and maybe questions. Basically that’s all I’m doing, is asking questions.”
He says Son Volt “is the focus for the foreseeable future,” and he plans to release a deluxe double-disc edition of “The Search” with all 22 tracks. (It’s already available on iTunes).
But he says his growth will continue: He says he and Parker have been doing more demos for Gob Iron, “and I’ll probably get around to doing another solo record at some point.”
And he virtually rules out an Uncle Tupelo reunion.
“It never crosses my mind, no,” he says. “But I get asked about it a lot, though, and I know that something came up recently where I said that it potentially could happen and maybe that gets taken out of context. I need to clarify that I don’t want to ever see it happen, I don’t want there to be a reunion and I don’t think there ever will be.”
He also says he doesn’t consider what influence his bands continue to have, with Americana music again becoming popular among young singer-songwriters and such bands as Augutana.
“No, I never think in those terms,” he says. “I mean, those elements are all out there for anyone to grab. I think of it as more of a continuum, really, where people just pass on inspiration and no one really invented anything. It’s just being passed around.”