Continuing Enigma

It’s not hard to see why Son Volt is considered one of the most enigmatic bands around. Leader Jay Farrar usually speaks in monosyllables (even when not being interviewed by drooling rock critics), and the rest of Son Volt — drummer Mike Heidorn, bassist Jim Boquist and his multi-instrumentalist brother Dave — have never been the most garrulous of people, either. Fans have had to search the band’s oblique lyrics and dense, challenging music for any clue as to who these Midwesterners really are.

But after two relatively similar CDs filled with gritty, caesura-laden rock and pedal-steel pathos — the brilliant Trace (Warner Brothers, 1995) and the underrated Straightaways (Warner Brothers, 1997) — it seemed we could finally peg Farrar, that we could finally say: Yeah, so that’s who you are, after all.

Well, not so fast, cowboy. The band responsible for 1998’s Wide Swing Tremolo (Warner Brothers), Son Volt’s third CD, is not the band you thought you knew.

They’re not different people, of course, but they’ve approached the art and craft of recording their music in a different way. The songs on Tremolo are still lyrically dense (perhaps even more so, with the dazzling prophecies of “Medicine Hat” the best example) but the music is something altogether different — more textured, more creatively candid, and, yes, even a bit more fun. Where the band’s previous two discs were recorded during short breaks from the road, Tremolo is a studio piece, a brightly colored painting crafted in opposition to the black-and-white photography of the earlier CDs.

“I don’t think it was any kind of conscious thing,” says guitar/fiddle/banjo/lap-steel guy Dave Boquist in a telephone interview. “We just had a little more time to do this one. We probably spent twice as much time recording this one as the first two.”

Recorded in the band’s rehearsal space (an old lingerie warehouse near St. Louis), the album evidences Son Volt’s more laid-back method of late: Because they had the luxury of not having to watch the expensive studio clock ticking away their dollars, they had more time to feel out a texture here, a different approach to songwriting there. On various tracks, distorted vocals pour through a Sony Walkman’s earphones, and Boquist’s lap steel bellows from a tiny, tinny mini-amplifier. All in all, it adds up to a cycle of songs that shows a very different side of Farrar’s and the band’s influences: Instead of honky-tonk and mountain music crossed with Husker Du-era punk, Tremolo exhibits a bluesier, more Beatles-esque flavor.

Which is just fine with Boquist. “Personally,” he says, “I really didn’t have as much of that [country] influence as people think. I would listen to songs here and there, but I didn’t particularly like it, as a kid.” And while he says he came to appreciate country music as an adult, it seems he’d still rather jam on a song by the Stones than on one by Merle Haggard.

But that’s not to say that country music — or rather, country-rock, and its distinctive instrumentation — didn’t have a lasting effect on him. As the band’s resident multi-instrumentalist, he does play quite a few traditional instruments — swinging authoritatively on fiddle, banjo and even, on the new release, viola.

“Lots of bands in the ’70s were playing with these types of [traditional] instruments,” Boquist explains. “The Eagles, Poco, Pure Prairie League, Neil Young — you can hear pedal steel on all of those records. That stuff was more popular back then than people realize. I guess it all goes back to [’60s supergroup] Buffalo Springfield.”

He’s right, of course, and if the seeds of the easygoing country-rock movement of the ’70s can be found in Buffalo Springfield, then the seeds of the ’90s roots-punk movement — which encompasses everyone from brooding highway-poet Richard Buckner to honky-tonk gadfly Robbie Fulks, from mountain balladeer Gillian Welch to the disintegrating Raleigh rockers Whiskeytown — can be found in Farrar’s first band, Uncle Tupelo.

By now, that story is pretty well-known. As the frontman — along with Jeff Tweedy, who now heads up Wilco — of the seminal trio Uncle Tupelo, Farrar was sanctified by the alternative-country crowd for his startling blend of genres and his weary, post-industrial outlook (Farrar was taken to task by one critic for writing “country-rock for the too-literary” … as if that was a bad thing). But after four albums, Tupelo seemed to hit an impasse; each songwriter was too fully realized, too creatively fecund, to play second fiddle. So they broke up, not without some lingering animosity, and formed Wilco and Son Volt.

When Trace was released, it seemed that Farrar had single-handedly brought traditional music into the irony-laden wasteland of alternative-rock radio; in a world filled with flaccid groups like Dishwalla and Bush, Son Volt’s single “Drown” was (pun intended) a breath of fresh air. Subsequently, the band was heralded by even mainstream media as the leader of the alternacountry movement, and canonized in No Depression magazine as the Next Big Thing — bringing roots music to culture-starved Gen-X kids.

Boquist laughs at those accolades. “That’s nice, that’s very flattering,” he says, “but really, this is nothing new. Like I said, there was a whole wave of that, back in the ’70s.” And anyway, he maintains, the band’s success had very little to do with the roots element. “The songs have a lot of depth,” he says, “the depth is what sets [Farrar’s] music apart. As far as … fiddles and banjos [go], that’s just the instrumentation. It’s really about the songs, and he’s a great songwriter.”

After Straightaways, Son Volt’s second CD, failed to create as big a wave as their first had, many saw the band as having run out of musical ideas, as coasting on cruise-control. Part of the problem, no doubt, was their minimalist stage presence, a concentration on the music to the exclusion of all else. Many of their fair-weather radio fans seemed to be turned off by the band’s melancholy charm.

That doesn’t bother Boquist much, though. “I don’t think any of us are very good at stand-up comedy,” he says. “It would be out of our character to do anything else. If we tried to do something like that, we’d fail tremendously. I think people come to a show [expecting] what they bring to it, and if they want it to be another kind of show, they’ll obviously be let down. But if they’re coming to hear our music, then, hopefully, they’ll appreciate what we’re trying to do.”

Often, Son Volt confounds even the critics. One New York Times reviewer remarked that Farrar was peddling nostalgia for an imagined better time, an America “that existed only in song.” But the reality is that Farrar’s America reflects the true changing face of small towns and rural byways everywhere: asphalt prairies, dioxin-poisoned rivers, “pesticide moons” and crumbling roadside motels.

It’s the sort of vision that big-city folks just might not understand.

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