- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2007

Son Volt The Search

Transmit Sound/Legacy

Jay Farrar draws deeply from the American music canon on his latest recording under the Son Volt moniker.

The album peddles a Whitman’s Sampler of influences, from Memphis horns to psychedelic folk to punk to unapologetic, driving rock. Although no one song resembles any other, “The Search” retains a singular sound thanks to Dave Bryson’s dense, textured drumming, which rides shotgun to Mr. Farrar’s driving vocals on nearly every track.

Mr. Farrar came to prominence as the frontman for Uncle Tupelo, the seminal alt-country band he founded with high school classmate Jeff Tweedy. Their 1994 breakup is the stuff of alternative music lore. It is doubtful that two artists with diverging musical visions could have long remained co-leaders of a single outfit. Mr. Tweedy went on to found Wilco, which hewed closer to Uncle Tupelo’s country roots. Mr. Farrar showed off a more rock ‘n’ roll sensibility with Son Volt. On “The Search,” the fifth Son Volt recording, Mr. Farrar incorporates new instrumentation and new rhythms into his sonic palette to produce the group’s most complete recording to date.

Lyrically, “The Search” charts an arc of despair and longing in which hopelessness has settled over the lives of those chronicled. The title track has the feel of an updated Neil Young and Crazy Horse tune, with a pinched, twangy guitar line shimmering around the vocals. The cheery kinesis of the melody belies the dark tone of the lyrics, which hint at the underside of the information age with such lines as, “They can listen in, they can nose around/They can listen in but they can never take us down.”

“The Picture” opens with a blast of horns and a persistent, ranging drum line that rises and falls like a vocal track, lingering here on a shimmer of high hat, there on a rumble of tom-tom. It’s a gorgeously grim song, contrasting a Memphis soul vibe with an almost apocalyptic vision of a polluted, corrupted land. Mr. Farrar resuscitates the old psychedelic era trick of mixing in backward electric guitar fills on “Circadian Rhythm.” The passages produce a kind of aural dissonance, eerie like a theremin, yet oddly familiar and reassuring.

The only true country number is “Highways and Cigarettes,” a song about life on the road that features a pedal-steel guitar moan and vocal duet with Mr. Farrar and Shannon McNally, a singer who recalls Joni Mitchell in both timbre and range. This number is the class act of the album, brooding and atmospheric in the manner of the best old Uncle Tupelo tracks and so authentically country that the mind fills in the sound of tires rumbling over blacktop amid the strummed chords and pedal-steel wails.

“L Train to Williamsburg” is a somber dig at Brooklyn, N.Y.’s self-styled underground, the title referencing the subway line that rumbles from Manhattan’s 14th Street to the redeveloped, formerly immigrant neighborhood that many in the dangerously hip community call home.

Here, Mr. Farrar is on truly dangerous ground — taking shots at the urban tastemakers among his audience. Still, he finds something essentially human missing from the tribes of arrivistes looking for fame and fortune, where “everyone speaks their own movie,” and where dreams are deferred amid an indifferent frenzy.

It may be the first really memorable song about New York that fails to take as its central assumption the notion that the city is great.

There is a touch of the ambition of Bob Dylan’s “The Basement Tapes” here. While “The Search” lacks the spontaneity, range and playfulness of the Dylan classic, it offers a kind of romp through the backwaters of American musical idiom, and Mr. Farrar proves himself to be a gifted channeler of the ghosts of what critic Jon Pareles once dubbed the “Invisible Republic.”

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