No Going Back
Jay Fa·rrar n.&adj. n. 1 an alternative country singer/songwriter in the Bob Dylan troubadour tradition and former co-front man of Uncle Tupelo; largely credited as one of the two founding fathers of the alternative country music genre. adj. 2 A way of behaving that is self-important or self-indulgent (Mike smoked a lot of weed and started getting all ‘Jay Farrar’ on us.)
Jay Farrar is the kind of distinctive singer that makes people say ridiculous things about him. Things like: He’s the kind of singer that could make a reading of Field & Stream magazine sound transcendental. But, to a degree, that’s absolutely true. To another, that’s absolutely the problem.
Farrar is, to a small group of hardcore alternative country fans, something of a living legend. It’s a role that both befits and confines him. His post-Uncle Tupelo debut, Trace, is one of the most amazing records of our time. It helped define a burgeoning alt-country scene and stands as one of the genre’s standard bearers. Yet, the Son Volt records that followed, while still very good by industry standards, have never quite lived up to that beautiful promise. But fans of Farrar and alt-country have never seemed to be able to accept that Trace wasn’t the beginning of that beauty, but simply a beautiful moment. Instead, they—hell, we—demand more. We want the rainbow to continue on and on, a soundtrack that is “Windfall” never ending. Maybe that’s fair. Maybe it’s not. But one thing is for certain: Jay Farrar will never recapture that magic in that same way.
That brings us to Terroir Blues, Farrar’s second full-length solo effort. While not as sonically ambitious as Farrar’s first foray away from Son Volt, Sebastopol, there is a simple and stark grace to these songs. Partially inspired by the death of his father, this is a record full of sorrow and hope. Darkness and beauty; it’s full of tasty contradictions, just like Farrar himself.
The opening track, “No Rolling Back”, is rough-hewn promise of the singer/songwriter that brought us Trace. It’s a song that shows how remarkable Farrar can be with so little. His acoustic guitar and deep baritone, backed by the Blood Red Oranges’ Mark Spencer on lap steel and Superchunk’s Jon Wurster on drums ( a simple beat with a great live feel), create as big of a sound as the most layered of the Flaming Lips’ rave-ups. In many ways, there is a lot to compare here to the Lips’ “Do You Realize?”. Despite all “this 21st century blood”, there’s feeling that everything is going to be OK—“But the future is free / No rolling back”. On first listen, you know this will be one of the standout cuts.
Momentum, though, is lost with one of several “Space Junk” instrumental tracks. “Hard Is the Fall”, a slow droning song drenched in vocal reverb, does little to help. “Fool King’s Crown” is next with a few teasing Beach Boys-esque notes before giving way to the Bottle Rocket’s Brian Henneman’s electric slide guitar. Again, Farrar’s voice is distorted and the track never really gets off the ground, despite being one of the most interesting arrangements on the record. “Hanging on to You” sounds a lot like the best of Wide Swing Tremolo-era Son Volt, a song that makes the case that maybe Farrar is at his best when he keeps it relatively simple—though Spencer’s piano work adds a rewarding layer. The other highlight on Terroir Blues is “California”, featuring some fine work by Eric Heywood on pedal steel. It’s a song that is a lyrical departure from most of the terrain being worked on the album, an observational and wistful tune about how “no one could dream a place like California”.
But “California” is the 12th of the 23 tracks that make up Terroir Blues, and by the time you reach the beginning of “Walk You Down”, you find yourself wondering the same thing that Jay is in the song—“Who is there to listen?”. Odds are, only the hardcore Farrar fans are going to make it this deep into the record. And that’s not necessarily an indictment of the song quality, rather a question of editing and self-control. Farrar pretty much is the Act/Resist label and you wonder if there was anyone around capable of reigning in his ambition and vision. A comfortable 15 songs, minus much of the “Space Junk”, would have made this a more readily digestible effort.
But Farrar has never really been about self-control. In fact, one of the things that really annoys fans and critics alike about the man is his tendency toward the self-indulgent. His lyrics are often unnecessarily cryptic and/or preachy. His constructions, at times, would make even the most juvenile of songwriters uncomfortable. Take, for instance, “Cahokian”, with lines like, “I will wait for you in the green, green spaces / Wearing our post-industrial faces / Side by side sit the trashpile twins / And the Eleventh Century Ceremonial Center / Of the Mississippian / With their calendar of the sun / A people undone”. I’m sorry, but anything with the phrase “post-industrial” in front of it doesn’t belong in a song, let alone a book of poetry (unless it’s James Tate, who, it seems, can get away with saying pretty much anything). I guess we simply must remind ourselves that we are but first-year students in Professor Farrar’s class: The World 101.
So here we are again, trying to impose our own definition of Jay Farrar on the Belleville, Illinois native. Even valid criticism seems sort of unfair. No matter what Farrar does, he will always be a hostage to his own, unique sound. A prisoner of his legacy, one both enhanced and tarnished by every post-Trace word he utters or note he creates.