That former Uncle Tupelo member and current Son Volt leader Jay Farrar would attempt to record an album of songs that pay tribute to Beat Generation hero Jack Kerouac via his novel Big Sur isn’t too surprising. Farrar has always had an eye and a voice for the lonely, dirt road epics that Kerouac’s feet walked on years before Farrar ever picked up a guitar. The surprising factor is in Farrar’s partner for the project: Death Cab For Cutie front man (and now Mr. Zooey Deschanel) Benjamin Gibbard. An interesting choice, to be sure, and while Gibbard does add to the texture of the album – with his lovely warble, but not matching the ache of Farrar’s more seasoned voice – as a whole, the project is only decent, not phenomenal in the way one would hope.
Perhaps it’s the preconditions that kill the album’s ability to come across as coherent. Farrar has, this far into the various facets of his careers, been able to position himself as the long lost heir to Hank Williams, with enough Woodie Gunthrie in him to keep his narratives socially apt to the specific demographic for which he writes to, for and about. If there are two things Farrar has, it’s coherence and focus. It’s those traits that are sadly missed on One Move or I’m Gone, especially when considering the album is a supposed chronicle of Kerouac’s battle with his myriad of demons ranging from alcoholism to nervous breakdowns. These are subjects Farrar has handled before, with passion and a keen eye for detail.
There are some literary threads throughout the album, like “California Zephyr” and “Sea Engines”, which have what feels like legitimate Kerouac imagery and are driven by structures that recall Big Sur effortlessly. But as whole, the focused narrative doesn’t match its literary counterpart, as the too literal title track of the album proves.
Interestingly enough, when the preconditions of what the album is suppose to be are thrown out, One Move or I’m Gone reveals itself to be a damn good alternative country album. Sonically, the album hits almost every note right, with a concoction of organs, pedal steels, brush snares and worn out guitar strings meshing into the perfect template for the material. Farrar and Gibbard turn in mournful harmonies with gusto, whit and isolation.
“Breathe Our Iodine” flat out smolders, “These Roads Don’t Move” is far more mobile than the title would suggest. “Final Horrors” is in the same chill-inducing vein of Alejandro Escovedo’s “Paradise”. “Sea Engines” finds Gibbard and Ferrar sounding like lost brothers writing to each other after years of absence.
Taken in isolation and away from their intended meaning, most every song on the album sounds like a Grade A piece of Americana, but it’s almost impossible to distance these songs from their whole, and it would be disrespectful to both Farrar and Gibbard to do so, which in turns makes the album more of a nice attempt to pay respect to Kerouac from two fan boys than a legitimate tribute to one of America’s most famous and influential writers.