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Wednesday, March 14, 2007 09:35 am

Still serious after all these years

Jay FarrarÂ’s still looking for answers on Son VoltÂ’s latest

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Son Volt The Search (Transmit Sound/Legacy)
Untitled Document The Search, Son Volt’s fifth album, doesn’t shy away from heavy subjects. Among its themes are stem-cell research, FBI wiretapping, global warming, gentrification, war profiteering, and methamphetamine addiction — not exactly a recipe for cheer and also no great surprise to anyone at all familiar with Jay Farrar, the band’s singer, songwriter, and only original member. Even in his twenties, during those heady Uncle Tupelo days, he was a serious guy. When he sang about getting drunk, it wasn’t some frat-boy Dionysus getting wasted at the kegger; it was a black-lunged old stoic self-anesthetizing at the corner tavern. If anything, Farrar, now 40, has only lightened up in recent years, which, admittedly, is an odd thing to say about a man who recently released a record called Death Songs for the Living. With apologies to Bob Dylan, he was so much older then; he’s younger than that now. What makes The Search so remarkable isn’t its heaviness but instead its hopefulness: the forthright assertion emerging from a flurry of obliquities; the major third that lands, light as a shaft of sunlight, right smack in the threnodic thicket. “The Picture,” the album’s first single, pits Stax-inspired horns against a series of gloomy bulletins: “Hurricanes in December — earthquakes in the heartland/Bad air index on a flashing warning sign/Bound for trouble — the picture is dirty.” And yet the “The Picture” doesn’t sound dirty; with its sassy horn chart, Byrdsian guitar chime, and sprightly vocal melody, it sounds like Saturday in the park on a summer afternoon. At most, the chorus — “We’ll know when we get there/If we’ll find mercy” — is cautiously optimistic (emphasis on the “cautiously”), but that’s only if you’re reading it. Hearing the same words sung, you can’t help but understand “mercy” as a promise rather than a possibility. Conversely, the slow, synth-washed “Phosphate Skin,” sounds much sadder than it is; Farrar’s voice is so doleful, the fake strings so somber, that it’s almost startling to encounter lines such as “The daily drag makes you stronger” and “It can only get better from here.”
The Search is the second offering from the second iteration of Son Volt, which finds Farrar in the company of lead guitarist Brad Rice, bassist Andrew Duplantis, drummer Dave Bryson, and keyboardist Derry deBorja, who joined the group after 2005’s Okemah and the Melody of Riot. Whether it’s a result of deBorja’s presence or simply the band’s collective experience is impossible to say, but the orchestration has never been richer. Whereas Okemah was unabashedly guitar-centric, bristling with tube-amp crackle and bite, The Search is stranger and subtler, yielding a panoply of sonic effects. Farrar pulls out the electric bouzouki, Rice wields an electric sitar and e-bow, and, for those diehard Trace loyalists, special guest Eric Heywood ups the twang ante with weepy pedal steel. Singer Shannon McNally even plays Emmylou Harris to Farrar’s Gram Parsons on the lovely close-harmony duet “Highways and Cigarettes,” another song that’s sure to impress fans of the first Son Volt. Even better, though, are the surprises. Opening cut “Slow Hearse” blends elegiac piano with Indian-flavored guitars, and “Action” blurs the line between raga drone and Delta moan. “Circadian Rhythm,” an exercise in psych-roots extravagance, drizzles organ shimmer over spiky backward-guitar loops. The melancholy piano ballad “Adrenaline and Heresy” suddenly sprouts drums for its driving coda, and the ravishing “Underground Dream” melts icy synths into warm arpeggiated guitars. “It’s the search, not the find,” Farrar sings on the title track, the closest he’ll ever get to a personal manifesto. If The Search is any indication, let’s hope he never quits looking.

Contact René Spencer Saller at rssaller@core.com.
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