Music

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

Label: Rhino
US Release Date: 2015-10-30
UK Release Date: 2015-10-30
Amazon
iTunes

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.

9

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less
Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image