A look back at why Son Volt was so essential at one time, and a bit of insight into why Jay Farrar has not been since their parting.
For those who are still paying attention to what Jay Farrar is doing, and we are becoming an increasingly disenchanted number since Sebastopol, along comes a retrospective to remind us that he was truly great once. Perhaps that greatness still lurks in the soul of the man who made Trace. It's become obvious that record will always be his high watermark, and shared in the creation of something as seminal as Uncle Tupelo. While the new Son Volt record Okemah and the Melody of Riot is an admirable return to Farrar's noisier rocking roots, that record in conjunction with this retrospective is the best argument for why the original members of Son Volt were an irreplaceable part of the creation of Son Volt's signature Americana. If nothing else A Retrospective: 1995-2000 shows Son Volt as capable of making some of the best music of the later 20th century. Why Farrar was so eager to leave Son Volt and this sound behind is open to speculation, but it's clear from the lesser-known tracks included on A Retrospective: 1995-2000 that this band died too early.
The usual suspects are included on the compilation. As with any retrospective which seeks to honor a band that only put out three albums, there will be quibbling over what tracks from which albums should have been included. Essentially any tracks off Trace would be appropriate for such a release, and indeed that album is well represented. There are four tracks taken directly from the album and two more ("Tear Stained Eye", "Loose String") that are included in their four-track demo state. Straightaways and Wide String Tremolo are represented with three songs each. The weighting of the selections towards Trace isn't surprising. In fact it's necessary and essential. If nothing else this retrospective puts into stark contrast the consistent excellence of Trace and Farrar's struggles to regain that consistency on subsequent releases. It's an eye opener hearing the non-Trace album tracks in a context where they're not dragged down by the subpar material that they usually share space with. Straightaways and Wide String Tremolo are fine albums with high points well represented here. But they're light bulbs trying to compete with stadium lights.
So why not just go out and buy the three Son Volt albums represented here? Why not head out and buy Trace (if you don't have it you should) and consider yourself well versed in all that is Son Volt? What makes A Retrospective: 1995-2000 worth the price of admission? Simply put: it's the b-sides. There are eight songs here that only the absolute Son Volt complete-ist will have heard. These songs are as representative of what Son Volt was about as the albums they put out.
"I've Got to Know", a Woody Guthrie cover, is fine enough to make you wonder what would've happened to Mermaid Avenue had Billy Bragg picked up the phone and called Jay Farrar instead of Jeff Tweedy. It's become increasingly obvious that Farrar is the inheritor of Guthrie's everyman politics. "Looking at the World Through a Windshield" is an old trucker song that the band does proud. "Tulsa County" is a cover from a promo EP, a weepy broken-hearted ballad that shows the band's easy way with covers. The song feels comfortable in their hands. The gruff country sound fits like a pair of well-worn shoes. They inhabit it thoroughly and convince you that they belong playing these American originals. The same is true of the Huddie Ledbetter cover "Ain't No More Cane", Alex Chilton's "Holocaust", and Bruce Springsteen's "Open All Night".
The two early demos from Trace, "Tear Stained Eye" and "Loose String", are interesting for their insight into the songwriting process. Neither of these songs have the electricity of their album versions. They are subdued and cautious, presented with just Farrar on acoustic guitar and harmonica. They're insightful versions because they show the inimitable dynamic that the band (Mike Heidorn, Jim and Dave Boquist) brought to these songs and why they're so missed both in Farrar's solo work and the new Son Volt. There's a passion in the final version of these songs that doesn't come through on the demos. You can feel Farrar being pushed by the band, and being excited about it. Farrar may have all the songwriting credits, but don't think for a minute that the band wasn't a necessary part of making those songs timeless. A Retrospective: 1995-2000 certainly reminds us of that.