Okemah and the Melody of Riot – Son Volt
I don't know if anyone's asked Jay Farrar or Jeff Tweedy whether they'd give up their success if they could also be rid of their penchant for drama, but it's one of the more entertaining issues for fans of recent rock. Many movies have had less interesting plots than their story. Act One: Farrar and Tweedy outgrow the friendship which fueled their band, whereupon both set out with their own bands and record debuts which confirm the common suspicion that Farrar was the auteur of Uncle Tupelo. Act Two: In a startling twist, Tweedy, the eager McCartney of Tupelo, reinvents himself as a moody Lennon and propels Wilco to fame, while Farrar loses his taste for the spotlight and puts his outfit, Son Volt, on hiatus.
Now comes another new development and a potential Act Three. Farrar turns up with a reconstituted Son Volt, and, despite the convoluted album title, the news is that he just wants to party like it's 1993. You won't find 12 minutes of electronic noise in the middle of this CD. The agenda for Son Volt remains country-shaded and punk-infused rock, trouble-in-the-heartland lyrics, and a production strategy which encompasses little more than bringing Saturday night at the local guitar joint home to your stereo.
The only trouble is that, while Farrar's one-of-a-kind voice and country/punk chord progressions still make him as much of a Lennon type as the post-Being There Tweedy, he doesn’t have much easier of a time with the simple outreach than Lennon would have trying to write his own "Hey Jude." In the Tupelo days, the punks may have needed a reminder that the Sex Pistols didn’t invent working-class self-expression, but these days shoutouts to Guthrie and Dylan and paeans to the joys of the "Gramophone" aren’t much closer to a "grassroots insurrection" (despite Farrar’s suggestion to the contrary in "6 String Belief") than a classic rock station getting the Led out. With a "Fortunate Son" in the White House, revisiting the themes of that song, as Farrar does in "Jet Pilot," might seem salutary, but Farrar’s dynamic shifts and worn slogans ("the revolution will be televised") don’t summon the simple fury of Fogerty’s original. And what’s this quintessential melancholist doing telling us that "there’s no reason to feel downhearted"?
This stage of the Farrar story isn't all bad news, though. The music of even the most obvious country rockers, such as "Gramophone," has a charm which tempts you to ignore the familiarity of the verbal messages. "Endless War" revisits the Iraq theme with a barbed, Neil Young-style coda that finishes the story Farrar's lyric begins. "Who's" mix of chord-sequence twist and turns and a poppy chorus reminds us of how much fun 1993 could be. "Ipecac" taps into the same country melancholy that Farrar mastered in the days of "Slate." And the closer, "World Waits for You," has the unapologetic sweetness of the piano rambles Young slipped into albums like Time Fades Away perhaps it also merits a comparison to Wilco’s "Reservations," except that Farrar ends the piece by bringing his rock band in for a curtain call rather than letting it drift into a Yankee Hotel-styled ambient haze.
Realistically, it's safe to assume that the Farrar/Tweedy relationship, once friendship and then a rivalry, is now somewhere closer to polite disinterest. For all of the new Son Volt's appeal, though, this CD leaves one wishing that Farrar might note that, while Tweedy's battles with bandmates and label execs may have landed him in rehab, they've been an important reason why A Ghost Is Born is as stimulating as Tupelo’s Anodyne. Okemah and the Melody of Riot shows Farrar in control, but skirmishes for control are as much of a fuel for strong CDs as they are grist for the mill of provocative interviews and reviews.