Posts Tagged ‘Jay Farrar’

SON VOLT – ” Union “

Posted: March 27, 2019 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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Power to the People: Son Volt's Jay Farrar Gets Back to His Roots

Son Volt’s highly topical new album “Union” includes four songs that Jay Farrar recorded while sitting next to Woody Guthrie’s handwritten lyrics to “This Land Is Your Land.”

It’s a fitting juxtaposition: Just as “This Land Is Your Land” was among Guthrie’s more pointed songs, Union is Son Volt’s most overtly political album in nearly 15 years. On a dozen new tunes and a cover, Farrar casts a skeptical eye on late capitalism, addresses the widening gulf of income inequality, imagines and offers a prescription for unity at a fraught moment in a divided nation.

After dabbling in a stylized electric blues sound on Notes of Blue in 2017, and exploring Bakersfield-style country on Honky Tonk in 2013, Union returns to the rootsy rock ’n’ roll of early Son Volt with a blend of acoustic and electric guitars, organ and harmony vocals sweetening Farrar’s worn-in, authoritative voice. Farrar began writing songs for Union in December 2016, and the sting of the previous month’s presidential election was still fresh. “I was just trying to make sense of things, and turning to pen and paper and music just seemed the natural way to go,” Farrar says. “It was sort of the tradition of the bard: the only thing I could do to feel like I was participating in anything that might help would be to write these songs. Whether or not they helped is anybody’s guess, but they helped me.”

Lest the album become a grim political screed, Farrar included a handful of non-topical songs with a different inspiration: his kids. With a son in college and a daughter in high school, the singer was thinking about sending them off into the world when he wrote “The Reason” and “Holding Your Own.” They’re tender songs, from a quietly proud father who is “seeing them go into adulthood and just thinking about the trials they will face, and hoping they don’t fall and press onward,” Farrar says.

He and recording engineer Jacob Detering took seven songs on the road, recording basic guitar and vocal tracks for four of them at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the other three at the Mother Jones Museum in Mount Olive, Illinois. (Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, once denounced in the U.S. Senate as the “grandmother of all agitators,” was a community activist and labor organizer in the late 1800s and early 1900s, most prominently involved with the United Mine Workers.)

Farrar and Detering arrived at the Woody Guthrie Center in the morning on a Monday, when the museum is closed to the public.

It’s not the first time: Guthrie has long been an inspiration to Farrar. The Son Volt leader collaborated on music for a batch of Guthrie’s previously unrecorded lyrics on 2012’s New Multitudes, with Jim James (billed as “Yim Yames”), Anders Parker and ex-Centro-matic singer Will Johnson. Farrar named Son Volt’s 2005 album, Okemah and the Melody of Riot, after the Oklahoma town where Guthrie was born. And like Guthrie, Farrar has consistently written topical songs throughout his career, though in so low-key a way that it often escapes notice.

“It’s always been there to some degree,” Farrar says. “With Uncle Tupelo, it would find its way into some songs, though not in as focused or comprehensive a way as it later sort of evolved into.”

Farrar sang on Uncle Tupelo’s first two albums about the dead ends of life in the post-industrial Midwest on songs with names like “Graveyard Shift,” “Factory Belt” and “Looking for a Way Out.” On the band’s acoustic third album, the song “Criminals” took direct aim at class divides: “Those that bleed the blood and those who work to will it.”

“His songs, they’re not simple, but they’re elemental, and that’s a hard thing to do,” says Anders Parker, who also collaborates with Farrar in the duo Gob Iron (which reissues its out-of-print 2006 LP Death Songs for the Living on Record Store Day). “It’s not like listening to Pete Seeger or something like that, or even Woody. It may come from the same place, but it is a little more abstract and a little more impressionistic type of approach.”

When Farrar reactivated the band in 2004 after a hiatus, Son Volt the following year released Okemah and the Melody of Riot, which included songs addressing the George W. Bush administration in fairly direct terms. Nearly a decade and a half later, Farrar had no second thoughts about another politically minded album. “I think in some ways I’m probably more willing to dive headfirst into topical songwriting, maybe even more so than with Okemah and the Melody of Riot,” he says.

On Union, he sounds disgusted on “The 99” at the growing gap between rich and poor, growling electric guitars buzzing beneath his voice; and he’s ready to cast aside distracting frivolities on “While Rome Burns.” Farrar takes on the role of storyteller in the classic folk-balladeer sense on “Reality Winner” and album closer “The Symbol.” The former, a mournful, sympathetic tune named for the intelligence specialist sent to prison for leaking classified information about Russian election interference, mixes guitars and piano as Farrar describes the circumstances around her actions and asks on the refrain, “What have you done?” On “The Symbol,” a dusty, aching acoustic tune, he sings from the perspective of an undocumented immigrant facing the prospect of ejection from the land of immigrants where he—and his American-born children—have made a home.

Son Volt’s ‘Union’ will be released on Friday, March 29th. Visit your local indie record store to pickup a limited edition copy of the album pressed on opaque mixed maroon vinyl. These copies include an 11 x 11 screen print signed by Jay.

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Wilco - Summerteeth

Summerteeth, released 20 years ago this week, is Wilco’s contribution to a common trope in pop music history: The prettiest songs are often about the ugliest subjects. Summerteeth exists as part of that lineage. It’s the most gorgeously ornate album Wilco ever made, and also the most disturbing.

Tweedy wrote the songs that became Summerteeth at what should have been the happiest time in his life. Rather than sabotaging his music career, the breakup of Uncle Tupelo — his massively influential country-punk partnership with childhood friend Jay Farrar had liberated him to pursue a vision entirely his own. He’d married his longtime girlfriend, Sue Miller, the owner of Chicago music venue Lounge Ax, and together they were raising a young son. The 1996 double-LP Being There had established Wilco as arguably the most talented and ambitious band in alt-country and helped Tweedy escape his reputation as Farrar’s plucky sidekick.

“I dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt alright to me.” That’s a hell of a way to begin a song, and a hellish way. Just when the sleepy acoustic guitar chords out front of “Via Chicago” have lulled you into a stupor, Jeff Tweedy arrives to announce his shrugging approval toward the prospect of murdering someone he loves.

Eventually the Wilco frontman moves on to increasingly abstract imagery, from “I painted my name on the back of a leaf/ And I watched it float away” to “And crawling is screw faster lash/ I blow it with kisses.” The song builds from those initial chords into a vast soundscape that encapsulates Wilco at their best — that unparalleled ability to pile layers of beauty onto a simple folk song and then artfully rip it to shreds. At climactic moments, Tweedy launches into a slipshod guitar melody like Stephen Malkmus soloing over a disintegrating memory. Following it through to the finish is thrilling, but to get there you have to endure a whole verse of bloody, explosive details. It’s no wonder Tweedy writes in his new memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) that the album containing “Via Chicago” is “the record that’s hardest for my wife to listen to.”

Yet he writes, “I was probably as unhappy as I’d ever been. I was insecure, homesick, and drug-addled.” Even worse, “I had more love in my life that I’d ever had, and I was still lonely.” Furthermore, Tweedy was frustrated that Wilco had been pigeonholed as an alt-country band, a perception reinforced by Mermaid Avenue, a collaborative album with Billy Bragg setting music to unused Woody Guthrie lyrics. Being There had blown open the possibilities of what Wilco could be, but most of the listening public still saw the band a certain way. “People assumed we had this sort of identifiable, philistine range of influences,” Tweedy wrote, “and we, in our heads, knew that wasn’t the case.”

To upend those expectations, Wilco made their idea of a bubblegum record. The rootsy pop-rockers and ballads that populated 1994 debut A.M. were still in the mix, as were the formal and stylistic experiments that made Being There such a leap in terms of breadth and quality. But now Tweedy and his sideman Jay Bennett were building these songs into small-scale symphonies: Beach Boys harmonies spilling into every chorus, waves of gorgeous orchestration surging in and out of the frame. By this point they were more chamber-pop than cowpunk or whatever term the readership of No Depression favored that week.

It was a different record born from a different process. In many ways Summerteeth was a dry run for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and its accompanying saga, be it Tweedy’s embrace of abstract, impressionistic lyrics, the introduction of extensive studio tinkering to tear apart the songs, or tearing apart of the band that came along with it. Drummer Ken Coomer and bassist John Stirratt were largely excluded from the sessions while Tweedy and Bennett popped pills and piled on the overdubs. As Coomer complained to Greg Kot in his Wilco biography Learning How To Die, “There wasn’t really a band, just two guys losing their minds in the studio.”

It’s hard to dispute the results Summerteeth continued a run of masterpieces that began with Being There and continued well into the next decade — but Reprise Records did anyway. That’s another way the album presaged Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: The label asked Wilco to go back and record more accessible music to promote to radio. In this case the band played along, leading to a rare instance of label meddling that worked out really well. The glorious guitar-pop onslaught “Can’t Stand It” is a phenomenal album opener and a frankly underrated entry in the Wilco canon. On the other hand, although you can see why the label didn’t want Summerteeth to begin with the drowsy, depressive, dysfunctional “She’s A Jar,” it’s tough to understand why they couldn’t find a single anywhere else on the tracklist especially when they had one readily available just one track beyond “She’s A Jar.”

On one hand, there’s nothing quite like “A Shot In The Arm” in Wilco’s discography. On the other hand, it’s a great case study for what Wilco were doing on Summerteeth: one of the most beautiful and exhilarating pop songs they’ve ever recorded, and also one of the bleakest. Bennett’s cascading piano ripples, a rock-steady Coomer backbeat, and a Stirratt bass line propel it breathlessly forward while an arsenal of squealing synths collide in the sky like fireworks. All the while, Tweedy alludes to strained relations with his wife and seemingly considers whether a heroin habit might jolt him out of his doldrums. It begins and ends in flicker of synthesizers.

He hints at those tensions again on “Pieholden Suite,” a lush multi-part sequence that really earns that “suite” designation: “There’s a whisper I would like to breathe into your ear, but I’m too scared to get that close to you right now.” And again on “We’re Just Friends,”, If love’s so easy, why’s it hard?” And again on the heartbreaking “How To Fight Loneliness,” a lounge-ready acoustic slow-drift that concludes the best strategy for battling alienation is “just smile all the time.” Punchy rock tracks “I’m Always In Love,” “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (Again),” and “ELT” course with stress and frustration beneath their cheery veneers. “Can’t Stand It” toggles between strutting Stones-lite verses with a carefree party vibe and a euphoric chorus smothered in keyboards and church bells, yet Tweedy spends the song lashing out at the randomness of both God’s love and his own. Yet again, he evokes a personal life that’s falling apart: “You know it’s all beginning to feel like it’s ending.”

Not everything on the album is so dark. Summerteeth concludes with a stretch of music that feels like a redemption arc. There’s real tenderness in the lullaby “My Darling” and the lazy back porch reverie “When You Wake Up Feeling Old.” The title track finds some kind of resolution as it breezes from snappy twang to sighing rhapsody, though even the apparent reconciliation is oblique enough to keep listeners guessing. And on gentle closing track “In A Future Age,” Tweedy buys into the possibility of change, bookending his album-opening cries that “Your prayers will never be answered again!” with a call to “turn our prayers to outrageous dares.” Yet despite things generally looking up at the end, the album remains a document of Tweedy at one of his lowest moments.

He writes in his memoir that the darkness explored on Summerteeth, while very real, was not autobiographical in the strictest sense. He discusses writing “Via Chicago” and other songs from the era in a fragmented style he compares to mosaic and collage. “When I write in this mode, I write for myself first, pretending that the audience isn’t even there, and will never be there,” he explains. “I can get things off of my chest, I can invent versions of myself that are better than I believe I am … or worse, are even downright awful and murderous. I can expose shadow selves that I believe I should keep my eye on. I can admit things about myself without really having to take ownership of anything.”

In other words, when “She’s A Jar” reaches its twist ending and Tweedy declares, “She begs me not to hit her,” he’s not actually confessing to domestic violence. He’s singing about a fictionalized version of himself, or maybe as a different character entirely, as a way to air out the more disquieting corners of his psyche. Which is not to say it’s wrong to be repulsed by these images or to wish that Tweedy, as the album’s ostensible protagonist, had not verbalized them.

Summerteeth occupies a weird space in Wilco’s history. It stands alone among their output, a product of personal crises and creative friction that would have ended the band if they’d carried on forever. There are people who’ll (wrongly, but earnestly) tell you that actually, this is the best album Wilco ever made. Others see it as the beginning of the end of the band they once loved, a rough draft for future glories. Whatever you make of Summerteeth, I can attest from experience that the album helped Wilco to become for a generation of listeners what the Clash and the Minutemen had been for Tweedy.

Wide Swing Tremolo

Following the break-up of Americana standard-bearers Uncle Tupelo, singer-songwriter Jay Farrar and drummer Mike Heidorn recruited brothers Dave and Jim Boquist to form a new group – Son Volt – and signed to Warner Bros. The band’s third collection for the label, “Wide Swing Tremolo”, finds them leaning more toward the alternative side of alt-country,

From the vital drive of the opener with its distorted longing and its strained angst to the acoustic pulse of later tracks make this album a landmark in the now overpopulated landscape of country rock. The horror and fear that is all over “Jodel” gives way to the religious zealotry of Medicine Hat but redemption is found on the second half with the straight take on the country rocker that is Right On Through. If Question doesn’t get your foot tapping whilst making your head spin then you haven’t converted to the gospel of country and let me tell you, you’re missing out. Every generation an album arrives that signals a new direction and those who don’t see it will be left behind.

With energetic guitar rockers like “Straightface” and “Medicine Hat” practically jumping out of the speakers, even if Farrar’s enigmatic lyrics sometimes provide dark undercurrents. WIDE SWING TREMOLO was the final studio album from Son Volt’s original line-up, and we’ll crank it up now to celebrate the set’s 20th anniversary.

Wide Swing Tremolo is a wide-open, rocking album with precious little of the overt country influences found on previous Son Volt works. Instead, this album is driven by R.E.M.-like arpeggio guitar riffs and muscular, warm rhythms. It’s a strong album.

Son Volt was one of the most instrumental and influential bands in launching the alt-country movement of the 1990’s. The Search takes Jay Farrar’s signature juxtapositions of the arcane and the modern to provocative extremes, contrasting the blue highways of a disappearing cultural landscape with a perilous world in which the center no longer holds – a world of information overload, of clueless leaders carrying out sinister agendas, of “Hurricanes in December – earthquakes in the heartland / Bad air index on a flashing warning sign,” as the artist sings ruefully on “The Picture.” Originally released in 2007, and out of print for the past several years, this deluxe reissue of The Search features bonus content and comes pressed on colored double vinyl.

The 22-track reissue features all of the original tracks plus songs from the band’s 2007 vinyl-only “On Chant and Strum”. Available via CD, digital and a double-LP opaque sea foam green pressing, this release has been sequenced to mirror “On Chant and Strum”

Record Store Day 2018 will sweep America’s record shops, bringing with it performances, parties, and plenty of drool-worthy new and exclusives releases.  Uncle Tupelo (the band that predated and eventually morphed into Wilco) will release No Depression – Demos on Record Store Day. Previously released as disc two of the 2014 deluxe reissue of the landmark 1990 album, this marks the first time these tracks will be available on vinyl. Legacy will press 3000 copies.

One release we’re particularly excited about is Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression (Demos). the site and publication No Depression originally got its name from that 1990 album from Uncle Tupelo, a history former ND editor Kim Ruehl outlined in a recent piece for the Columbia Journalism Review.

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Referencing ND founding editor Peter Blackstock, Ruehl writes, “Blackstock occasionally participated in an online message board called NoDepression.AltCountry, named for the 1993 debut album of Midwest alt-country group Uncle Tupelo (who had, in turn, named their inaugural recording, No Depression, for a song The Carter Family had recorded a half-century earlier, during the Great Depression).”

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Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, and Mike Heidorn formed the group Uncle Tupelo after the lead singer of their previous band, The Primitives, left to attend college. The trio recorded three albums for Rockville Records, before signing with Sire Records and expanding to a five-piece. Shortly after the release of the band’s major label debut album Anodyne, Farrar announced his decision to leave the band due to a soured relationship with his co-songwriter Tweedy. Uncle Tupelo split on May 1, 1994, after completing a farewell tour. Following the breakup, Farrar formed Son Volt with Heidorn, while the remaining members continued as Wilco. Although Uncle Tupelo broke up before it achieved commercial success, the band is renowned for its impact on the alternative country music scene. The group’s first album, No Depression, became a byword for the genre and was widely influential. Uncle Tupelo’s sound was unlike popular country music of the time, drawing inspiration from styles as diverse as the hardcore punk of The Minutemen and the country instrumentation and harmony of the Carter Family and Hank Williams. Farrar and Tweedy lyrics frequently referred to Middle America and the working class of Belleville.

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This Record Store Day release features a handful of exclusives, including a 1988 demo of the title track, which has never before been released on vinyl. Check out more details and a track list for No Depression (Demos) here.

Released in 1990, Uncle Tupelo’s debut album No Depression was a genuine milestone in American rock and roll, a striking fusion of traditional folk and country with post-punk innovation and hardcore ferocity. For the first time on vinyl, fans can hear Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar and Mike Heidorn’s legendary demo tape Not Forever, Just For Now, recorded in 1989, plus a demo of “No Depression” recorded a year earlier.

Side A 1. Outdone [1989 Demo] 2. That Year [1989 Demo] 3. Whiskey Bottle [1989 Demo] 4. Flatness [1989 Demo] 5. I Got Drunk [1989 Demo]
Side B 1. Before I Break [1989 Demo] 2. Life Worth Living [1989 Demo] 3. Train [1989 Demo] 4. Graveyard Shift [1989 Demo] 5. Screen Door [1989 Demo] 6. No Depression [1988 Demo]

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If Jay Farrar’s name is unfamiliar to you, his music shouldn’t be. As one half of Uncle Tupelo, and then fellow bandmate Jeff Tweedy married the roar of punk rock with traditional country sounds for four albums, including their 1990 debut, No Depression, which help spew an entire genre of music now known as alt-country. With Farrar’s Springsteen-like tales of life in the Midwest (the duo hailed from Belleville, Illinois, outside of St. Louis) and Tweedy’s ruminations on love and relationships, the influence of Uncle Tupelo is legendary.

Farrar and Tweedy’s relationship was combustible to say the least, and they called it quits in 1994. Tweedy would go on to form Wilco and Jay Farrar carried on with Son Volt, debuting Trace, in 1995. Over the course of seven Son Volt albums and a hefty solo output, Farrar has immersed himself in all types of roots music, from folk to crunching rock. Now, with a new album “Notes of Blue”, scheduled for release February 17th 2017.

Farrar delivers a collection of songs inspired by the giants of Mississippi blues. two songs from Notes of Blue, “Back Against the Wall” and “Lost Souls” .