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Lone wolf
Beyond Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo

"Caught between/Between two worlds/Donít wanna be/Donít wanna be fenced in." Those lines from Jay Farrarís first solo album, Sebastopol, epitomize the restless search for new horizons that has lately been driving his music. After spending five years inventing the alterna-country genre as Jeff Tweedyís partner in Uncle Tupelo in the late í80s and early í90s, and a few more perfecting a similarly stripped-down, rootsy style as the leader of Son Volt, so that heís spent almost a decade as one of alternative country musicís most reliable mainstays, heís now decided that the last thing he wants to be is pigeonholed, easily classified, and, well, fenced in.

Terroir Blues, Farrarís new solo album and the first on his own Act/Resist label, which is distributed by the mini-major Artemis (home of his other solo releases), takes up his search for new directions. Itís a difficult album to get acquainted with, and a cursory hearing could leave old fans thinking that heís tossed out his past completely. But after a few careful listens, it becomes clear that the constants in this new universe heís operating in are more potent than the variables, and that Terroir Blues is an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary step ó one that doesnít abandon his love of Americana so much as find new ways to express it.

For starters, itís largely a quiet album from a guy who wrote some of Uncle Tupeloís most raucous numbers ó a more intimate and private statement than the open, spacious Sebastopol. Farrarís voice ó a weary, knowing baritone ó rarely rises above a healthy murmur, and there are fewer songs built around the traditional guitar/bass/drums line-up than on any other album heís made. Itís also a darker piece of work: themes of strained relationships, loss, and death are nothing new to Farrar, but here he focuses on them almost obsessively. (The album was written and recorded in the shadow of his fatherís death.) Heís called it a "back to basics" recording. But it also reveals his ever-expanding range of influences.

The disc kicks off straightforwardly enough with "No Rolling Back," a musical cousin of Son Voltís "Windfall," the closest thing that band had to a hit. Itís a paean to the values of moving on, though the lyrics have an oblique political edge to them ("In this round weíre in/The end is hard to imagine/Deliver us from now/From this 21st-century blood"). Mark Spencerís subtle lap-steel fills put the tune on familiar alterna-country ground. But then comes "Hard Is the Fall," where everything sounds as though it were being funneled through an echo pedal. Even odder is "Fool Kingís Crown," where Farrarís distorted voice is surrounded by an electric sitar and a fuzz bass over a funk beat. Add in a half-dozen 30-second electronic noise snippets called "Space Junk" over the course of the album and you could be forgiven for wondering whether Farrar isnít making an effort to keep up with the Joneses ó or at least the Tweedys.

But if any musical idea guides this album, itís the juxtaposition of opposites, not the urge to deconstruct. Textures range from cluttered to sparse. The studio effects sit side by side with pedal-steel guitars, cellos, and flutes. Farrar isnít simply trying to be different: though some of the sounds may be new, each represents just one more tool on his musical workbench, another lens through which to reflect his personality. The best songs are duets for Farrar and one of several of his guests. "Dent County," a spare elegy for his father, has Farrar at the piano and Eric Heywood playing some beautifully woozy pedal-steel licks. The loneliness of "Out on the Road" is underwritten by Lew Winer IIIís wistful flute solos.

The albumís masterpiece is "Cahokian," a dirge centered on the burial mounds of the ancient Mississippian civilization. Those mounds survive today near Farrarís home town of St. Louis, a reminder of a dead culture, and he takes them as a warning about the repetition of history. Off we go, he sings at the end, "Building our mounds out of control/Full of our finest throw-away things/The new Mississippians/Under a smog-choked sun/Waiting to be undone." "Terroir" is a French word meaning "soil" or "earth," and here Farrar listens closely to the earth around him. The whole thing has a mysterious, doomed feel to it thatís accentuated by Janice Riemanís cello obbligato.

Throw in one song with a reggae vibe ("Hanging onto You"), the "Space Junk," a couple of instrumentals, and four alternate takes at the end and youíve got . . . what? Terroir Blues is a tough album to categorize. Itís adventurous without being radical; it expands Farrarís perspective but succeeds best when it sticks to a sound and a feel that are familiar. A superficial hearing will convince the more cynical that Farrar felt compelled to experiment after Wilco got critical kudos for their Yankee Foxtrot Hotel. But in "No Rolling Back," he sounds as if he had already heard the accusation and doesnít plan to pay it much heed. "Youíre bound to get burned/Every other turn/But the future is free/No rolling back."

Issue Date: August 1 - August 7, 2003
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