The first time I spoke to Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt brain trust Jay Farrar, back around '95, he answered all my questions with a numbingly disinterested "yes" or "no." He was, without question, the worst interview subject I've ever endured.
I didn't get the feeling Farrar was being consciously difficult, proudly demonstrating to the media whore how little respect or tolerance he had for the inanity of the queries posed or the relevance of my inelegantly chosen profession (in the manner of an unrepentant, self-satisfied ass-worm on the order of a Michael Penn, whom I loathe exquisitely). Rather, I got the distinct impression that Farrar was simply a guy with nothing much to say—a shlumpy, oatmeal-ish personage, perhaps possessed of something less than a stellar intellect. I imagined him absent-mindedly picking at his navel as we spoke, perhaps even scratching the scales off his testicles and sniffing his fingers. For this, I never did fully forgive him. Do not smell your ball-tainted fingers when speaking to me, bee-yotch.
The bigger problem for me, however, was that Farrar's personality, or lack thereof, was manifested in his music. I theoretically wanted to approve of Tupelo and Volt. I tried to approve of them; they were obviously well-intentioned, sounded at least okay and exhibited the Proper Influences, but I could never manage anything more than to kind of like them a l'il bit. For all the good songs they wrote and the competent musicianship and solid taste they demonstrated, there was an emotional distance to the music. Neither band ever sounded to me as if they were having anything resembling fun. They were proficient as opposed to inspired; there was no spark in the manner of the truly great roots-rock bands of yore, from the Byrds to the Burrito Brothers, Creedence to Cody, the Long Ryders to Los Lobos.
So now Farrar has ostensibly broken up Son Volt ("extended hiatus" is the term he uses, hedging his bet) to pursue a solo career. Critical laudation has followed the release of his debut album, Sebastapol, as it predictably has for virtually everything Farrar's ever released. Me, I can't help thinking that the hosannas are the result of an alarmingly shallow contemporary talent pool in the genre. Alterna-country/roots rock/whatever-the-fuck-ya-wanna-call-it has become largely a sewer of crass imitation (as personified by Wayne Hancock, the Derailers, et. al), so whenever an artist sneaks a hint of their own vision into the music, it sticks out like Dubya's porcupine-esque unibrow, even if that vision is something less than a finely honed 20/20.
That's not to say I don't enjoy and, to some degree, even admire Sebastapol. I've listened to the album all the way through three times now without once becoming annoyed—that, in and of itself, is rather remarkable, as most music not created by old black alcoholics or chicken-eyed white hillbillies eventually manages to piss me off. Sebastapol (so named because Farrar, the great thinker, "likes the way it sounds") is a consistent and enjoyable album, brimming with a droning, vaguely depressing moodiness, and it's nothing if not honest, a trait I value above all others. For his myriad drawbacks in the enthusiasm and excitement departments, Farrar, at least, has never been pretentious or cute.
Sebastapol, to its credit, is also a mite less predictable than the too often Neil-Young-by-the-numbers Son Volt. Farrar has recruited a group of backup musicians, including slide guitar god Kelly Joe Phelps, vocalist Gillian Welch, Flaming Lips keyboardist Steven Drodze and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster to replace his former band mates, and they do his vision proud, such as it is. Unusual (for Farrar) instrumentation—synths, melodica and even sitar-cousin tambura—paint tonal strokes that add to the lazily hypnotic, desert-heat vibe of the proceedings. Farrar employed a variety of open guitar tunings, some of which he made up, for his composition and guitar work, ensuring that he didn't repeat himself in the songcraft department.
The end result is an album that follows a natural trajectory in the evolution of Farrar's sound but still offers something fresh and unique from his past output. It's advancement, but it's not forced.
"I knew I didn't want to make another Son Volt record," Farrar told me a couple of weeks ago, actually managing to string a few sentences together this time around. "I wanted to try some different approaches, open up some different avenues. It's a whole different ball game, but it's pretty much in line with what I've done. It wouldn't have worked in the context of Son Volt, but I feel like it's a natural progression."
So there you have it. In the end, I guess I like Jay Farrar well enough to recommend that you check him out Tuesday night at the Coach House. But Jay, allow me to suggest that you discover some form of substance abuse, sexual addiction or mental illness—whatever it takes to make me believe that for all your talents, you're driven by a muse more intense than the mere pleasures of your own 'nad pong.
Jay Farrar at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930. Tues., 8 p.m. $15. 18+.
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