After a five year pause to pursue different musical paths as a solo artist, Jay Farrar returns to the full-band format of Son Volt, albeit with a completely different supporting cast. Gone is the original line-up of drummer Mike Heidorn (who also played with Farrar in Uncle Tupelo) and the Boquist brothers, and in their place are three new players who sound eerily almost exactly like their predecessors.
On Okemah and the Melody of Riot, the first new Son Volt album in seven years, you basically have to forgive Farrar for disbanding the original group and just get over it, because Okemah boasts some of his best songs ever. In contrast, Farrar’s solo albums suffered too often from a lack of focus that made them hit or miss affairs at best, and while Farrar has seemingly embraced his old style once again, it’s hardly a step backwards artistically. He sounds rejuvenated, motivated, and irritated by the dark state of America, and it shows not only lyrically but musically as well. The songs are sinewy and production is kept to a bare-bones minimum, allowing the tracks to remain as raw and powerful as they should be. They seem to leap out of the speakers.
Farrar uses Woody Guthrie as a spiritual inspiration and guide for many of the songs on the album. From the use of Guthrie’s birthplace (Okemah, Oklahoma) in the album’s title to its opening track “Bandages and Scars” (“The words of Woody Guthrie ringing in my head”), it’s clear where Farrar’s head is at and where he’s going to take us. Woody Guthrie had “This machine kills Fascists” scrawled on his guitar and Farrar is carrying on that tradition of using music as a protest weapon on the anti-Bush track “Jet Pilot” (“Junior liked to let his hair down/ Only trouble is word gets around”), and to even greater result on “Endless War”, whose line “No moral face to the endless war” rings devastatingly accurate. Farrar hasn’t sounded this angry or direct since his Uncle Tupelo days and Okemah taps into a Crazy Horse-like vibe musically that’s frequently awesome to listen to.
Thomas Jefferson said that every generation should deem it necessary to stage their own revolution, and Farrar echoes that need for change on the balls-out rock of “6 String Belief”: “Revolution sets the course straight/ It was necessary then and it’s necessary now/ Corruption in the system/ A grass-roots insurrection could bring them down.” It’s provocative songwriting that doesn’t always work all the time. The somewhat puzzling “Ipecac” left me without a clue as to what Farrar was trying to say, and there are some points during the album where he momentarily loses some of his momentum, like on the rather pedestrian back-to-back cuts “Gramophone” and “Chaos Streams”. This may be only because the other tracks on the album are so strongly diverse. From the Flamin Groovies-sounding power-pop gem “Who” (one of the catchiest melodies Farrar has ever penned) to the piano-driven Beatle-esque reprise of “World Waits For You” that closes Okemah, Farrar is both reclaiming his musical past and forging ahead.
Okemah and the Melody of Riot is an intelligent, aggressive album that acts as a sorely needed kick in the ass to the entire Americana/alt.country genre. The new members of the band, especially guitarist Brad Rice (ex-Ryan Adams), are all fine musicians and rise to meet Farrar’s challenge, injecting a freshness into the music which in turn seems to have given Farrar himself a creative shot in the arm. Always inspired, the performances never fall back on clichés, instead constantly pushing and prodding the songs into new directions. Farrar’s lyrics are excellent throughout, trading his normally rather impressionistic prose for a more forceful, almost antagonistic voice to register his dissatisfaction with the powers that be that would have made Woody Guthrie proud. Okemah and the Melody of Riot is a fine return to form from a true original.