Terroir Blues finds Farrar’s voice as clear as ever. From the first song, “No Turning Back,” he sounds sincere and warm, as though he is taking me aside to whisper in my ear: “Deliver us from now / From this 21st century blood / Bound to get burned.”
Disappointingly, the second track, “Space Junk I,” is just standard backwards-guitar experimentation, which would be interesting to play backward to hear how it sounds “forward” if you’ve got the motivation. I just skip past it.
“Hard Is The Fall” is confusing. “Living through the hardest times is inspiration enough,” is an interesting lyric and Farrar’s acoustic guitar and Eric Heywood’s pedal steel sound great, but the way the songs is mixed has the left channel a split-second faster than the right, leaving an annoying echo, and rendering Farrar’s singing nearly impossible to understand. Reverb would have been fine. For this song, I only listen to the left or right channel at a time.
“Fool King’s Crown” sounds as though someone played each instrument and vocal track through a megaphone (similar to Isaac Brock’s “Wild Pack Of Family Dogs,” except not as good). The crusty sound leaves me frustrated and missing the clear vocals of the other 90% of the album. From the lyric sheet, I judge that this song is about poor leadership and money grubbing.
Other than “Hard Is The Fall,” “Fool King’s Crown” and the six (!) versions of “Space Junk” on the 23-track album, the rest of Terroir Blues is acoustic, beautiful, and provocative. Jay’s voice is warmer than ever, his lyrics are complex and enigmatic as ever, and the instrumentation (lots of pedal steel, strings and even a flute) add to an energetic yet mellow, thoughtful release.
“Out On The Road” features Lew Winer on flute. His wistful crescendos match the song’s themes: “You’re going to be built up / You’re going to be torn down,” but the flute counters the lyrical ambivalence and supports Farrar’s optimistic advice: “Some will promise all the world for just one dance / You’re gonna find pain… Don’t let the falling rain get in your eyes.” See, it’s not so depressing after all.
And not all the songs are sad, either. On “California,” Farrar sings “Walked the sidewalks of San Francisco / Spent the night in a town called Weed,” and even as he admits that “It’s been said before,” the song sounds fresh as a Coronado morning.
While Farrar offers no solution to his apocalyptic visions, it’s obvious by the end that he wants to be there to help. And while he wants to unravel our tightly-wound, near-busted pocket watches, he wonders “What’s in store when the going gets unraveled?” He nearly calls to us: “Who’s going to make a difference?” I suppose we should.
This album is inspirational in its shimmering acoustic and pedal steel compositions, and Lew Winer’s flute is exquisite throughout. (Trust me, I mean it. I’ve never used the word “exquisite” before.) With its 23 tracks, I’m willing to sacrifice the few non-songs. Even if you’re not yet a fan of Jay Farrar, Terroir Blues might be the album to turn you into one.
You can buy this album from Amazon. And you can download a different mix of “All of Your Might” (mp3) and other mp3s from jayfarrar.net. Check out Pat La Penna’s article about a Jay Farrar show in Michigan back in 2001: Another Round Before You Go.
There are times when you stop by the local watering hole only expecting to have one beer, and you take your barstool and place your order with that avowed intention, when you feel a hard slap on your back and a loud voice in your ear and turn to see the face of a friend you haven’t seen in awhile. He orders another round, and you settle in. That’s what Jay Farrar’s set at the Intersection was like.
If some of you like me are a little fuzzy on the names like I always am, he did a couple of albums with his band Son Volt, and before that, he was in Uncle Tupelo with a certain Jeff Tweedy (does that make Tweedy his cousin if they’ve got the same uncle?). His accompanist, Mark Spencer, played a Telecaster and a lap steel, while Jay had about half a dozen acoustic guitars with him, although I only saw him play one of them. The crowd was a little too old for a Tuesday night, and pulled tables and chairs up close to the stage where the dance floor would usually be. Farrar’s voice had that familiar tone and cadence, instantly recognizable.
Most of the set was comprised of songs from his new solo album, Sebastopol, very appropriate for the two guitar arrangement (even if the house acoustics and stage configuration was not), the songs a little like the conversation with that old friend where you talk about what you’ve been up to lately. Mixed in was an Uncle Tupelo number and a song or two from Son Volt’s debut Trace.
With the first couple of bars of “Tear Stained Eye,” after the appreciative woops from the crowd died down, I had to wonder why the old songs gave me so much more of a twinge than the new. Is it the fact that they’re old times being talked about that makes them good times, the years and a lively imagination putting a spin to them? Or do good songs become great when you’ve listened to them time and again on mix tapes, and sung along with the tune, out of tune, on road trips into the great West? Maybe he says it best in that very song: “Can you deny/there’s nothing greater/nothing more/than the traveling hand of time?”
Whatever it was, the songs sounded good, the slide guitar on the solo sounding like a trembling saw. I was still thinking about the question when they wound up their set and were brought back for an encore by the polite but insistent applause. They closed with another Son Volt song, “Windfall,” which sounded like the promise you make after a few too many rounds to keep in touch and do this more often, and they were done. I picked up his disc on the way out—as our man Scott put it, “It’s almost like buying the artist a beer, considering you’re cutting out the middleman.” And Jay definitely deserves another round.