They say you can never go home again. Try though he might, Jay Farrar has found out for himself. You might be able to go back to the old house only to find another family living there.
After abandoning the name in 1998 to pursue a “solo” career, Farrar finds himself coming home to the Son Volt moniker, a name he took on after he left Uncle Tupelo. What the difference is between his solo material and that which falls under the Son Volt umbrella seems to rest solely on whether weird keyboard sounds and loops are employed or straighter, country-tinged guitar rock is in tow.
Okemah and the Melody of Riot does bring Farrar back to a base with which he’s familiar and one Tupelo fans will surely welcome. There are loads of big guitar hooks, populist lyrics, tight instrumentation and that voice. References to Woody Guthrie and Revolutions will put those old time fans at ease and remind them of the long lost Whiskey Bottles, Postcards, and Anodynes that have lately taken a backseat to blips and static.
While the name remains the same, be sure that this is not entirely the Son Volt you remember. The Boquists are gone. So is Farrar’s companion from the Tupelo days, drummer Mike Heidorn. The only remaining member of the original line-up is Farrar himself. The chemistry is different. The production is different. There some pop influences there, particularly in Dave Bryson’s drumming. So, in essence, this isn’t Son Volt at all. The same could be said of the constantly fluid line-up of Wilco, but where Tweedy has stuck to the name and established that project as a “band” by way of relinquishing artistic control (if only briefly—ask Jay Bennett) and engaging in true collaboration, with an albeit revolving cast of players, Farrar is Son Volt.
But that’s not a negative, nor is it a reason to mock Farrar for resurrecting the name when his solo records failed to get the attention of his earlier Son Volt catalog. Okemah is a good album that works from Farrar’s strengths. It’s delivered with his flawed honesty and a commitment that has left a trail of broken musical relationships (not unlike that other guy). This may indeed be his best album since the genre defining Trace. But it’s hard to not at least acknowledge the fact that Farrar’s career would have probably been better served if he’d never dropped the name in the first place. If he hadn’t, this review would be about two-thirds shorter.
Just the same, welcome home, Jay.