Son Volt: Trace

In 1995 Jay Farrar was viewed as one of the most promising voices in American music. He didn't disappoint.
Son Volt

Trace was born in September 1995, a little more than a year after the dissolution of the almighty Uncle Tupelo. Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn and Tupelo frontman Jay Farrar had teamed up earlier in ’95 with Jim and Dave Boquist, a powerful guitar and bass two-fer from Minneapolis. But the history shared by the members or the legacy that helped birthed this new band hardly mattered. This was an album that would have stood and still stands an epically good record from a band with any track record or no track record at all.

Trace is an album that is nearly impossible to separate from the time in which it emerged: There were scores of jangly, country-influenced rock acts who were keen to mix up their Buck Owens with their Dead Kennedys; a generation of musicians who had grown up listening to Violent Femmes and Flying Burrito Brothers and all that other stuff and were ready to prove that you could still rock in America even with a little country mud on your shoes. Uncle Tupelo had been one of those bands, Jayhawks was another (though the boys from the Twin Cities had actually been kicking around for some time by then) there were the Bottle Rockets, artists such as Todd Snider and a host of groups that were about to come out of the woodwork on Chicago’s Bloodshot label. Even Wilco, featuring the other half of Uncle Tupelo, trod a countrified path for an album or album and a half.

Also part of that time was the absence of grunge. Cobain was dead and the rest was a floodgate of the great unwashed and the great under-talented. Pearl Jam had already come to a commercial peak and was irritating fans while it went to war with ticket agencies; Soundgarden had one or two more hits in it and Alice In Chains was about to fall into the abyss amid drug addiction and the usual rock band struggles. All the other stuff was a pale imitation of what grunge had promised; the last great explosion of forward-thinking music it seemed had come and gone.

And so this lot encouraged us to think backward to, to borrow from Farrar, during Trace’s earliest moments, try to find a truer sound. And in 1995 there could have been no truer sound than Trace. It wasn’t an entirely a throwback: The quartet wasn’t trying to sound like something that had existed before but no longer did. And yet there was a truth emanating from those amplifiers and guitar strings and drum sticks and, perhaps most importantly, from Farrar’s voice.

For this album he wrote like a man on fire with genius. There were rockers and slower numbers throughout the original album’s 10 originals and one brilliant cover, but the sequencing, the emotional wallop and the darkly beautiful images that emerged in the lyrics were as relentless in their truth-seeking and desire for victory as one might find on a hardcore punk album.

Farrar understood in his bones the great tradition of escape as catharsis and so that’s where Trace opens: a man on the road, seeking the right song to carry him through his travels, believing that 1963, at least for one moment, could be heaven. “Live Free Or Die”, New Hampshire’s state motto, provides the title of the second track and Farrar’s commitment to that maxim seems to crawl from each of the songs many pores. And this is a record made of pores: There are those little spaces between notes and sounds that allow the music to breath and for the listener to breathe it all in.

“Tear Stained Eye” is one of those: Arguably one of the most gorgeous songs ever written and certainly a personal best from its author, the song seems as though it could have just as easily been written in 1965 or, if not for references to neon signs and the like, maybe 100 years before. “Ten Second News” carried with it an eerie, post-apocalyptic vibe and, two decades back, seemed like something Neil Young would have been fascinated by but today seems like something only Farrar could have carried off with such conviction.

From there the record hits with a weight that seems impossible for songs coming along so late in a record. But “Loose String” is no less weighty than the record’s opener and “Out of the Picture” is no less solemn or stunning for its placement near the end of the record and no at it. “Catching On” and “Too Early” are as perfect as anything else here and then the record has a momentary kind of reprise with an absolutely ethereal reading of the on Ron Wood-penned “Mysifies Me”. In an era when countless bands were forced to cram CDs full of ephemera, this was a record that didn’t wear out its welcome and, on certain nights, you could listen to almost twice in its entirety during your commute home, depending.

The years have been kind to the songs of course (how could they not be?) but the overall sound of the album remains firmly intact, sounding as much a product of today as the day it was first issued. Of course now it comes with bonus material and for once bonus really means something. Farrar offers eight demo versions here, including an acoustic take on “Route”, an excellent version of “Live Free” and evidence that “Windfall” was really done by the time that he and the others took to the studio to have one more go. These offer listeners the chance to exclaim that the demo was almost as good as the finished product. This writer likes them just a little more because they lend an intimacy to the collection that is unmistakable and which seems like the most generous of gifts.

A second disc provides us with 18 songs from early 1996 at the Bottom Line in New York City. The rhythm section is more powerful than on the studio album and there is a time or two where you begin to forget that that band Nirvana meant anything at all for how hard this group hit on the stage. There’s a cover of the Del Reeves’ track “Looking At The World Through A Windshield” (“Mystifies Me” probably wouldn’t have worked in that setting), six tracks plucked from Farrar’s time with Uncle Tupelo and a new track, “Cemetery Savior” which fits right in no matter that it wouldn’t appear on record until 1997’s Straightaways.

The legendary Peter Blackstock provides detailed liner notes while Farrar gives a track-by-track analysis in his usual inimitable way. Today, as was the case 20 years ago, Trace is an experience not to be missed.

RATING 9 / 10