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Jay Farrar | Sebastopol (Artemis)
"Getting by on the status quo" may be prophetic words from a man who was jointly responsible for changing the shape of modern rock music. You could argue that his former band, Son Volt, made three very similar albums and all of them not a million miles away from the songs Jay penned while in Uncle Tupelo. You might also point out that his erstwhile bandmate, Jeff Tweedy, spent his post- Tupelo days changing musical styles like there was no tomorrow. It's an easy conclusion to draw, but a wrong one. Jay may not be knocking out singalong power pop, he may still be writing about the bleak state of the world as seen through a windscreen, but he is willing to stick his toe in the water of experimentation. He's a slow mover is all. Dispensing with his Son Volt sidekicks allows him to get Steve Drodze to wibble away at the keyboards, Kelly Joe Phelps to add some slide guitar and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings to join him at various points on the album, the latter pair lending a hand at making Barstow sound like a traditional country classic, only for the opening line, "Anyone caught speaking Esperanto is thought crazy or headed for jail", to blow that belief. Elsewhere it swings between the grandiose keyboard swimming around Damaged Son, a sparse Dead Promises and several, brief, instrumental interludes. Jay's lush drawl tends to divert your attention to what's going on behind, which may be why it feels like he's doing the same thing. Listen to the backing on Feed Kill Chain and it might convince you that he's capable of moving on and Make It Alright is almost a love song, a previously unheard of thing. Could this be a mellowing of Mr Farrar? Direction is as close to joyous as he gets, with its gambolling saxophone and drums and even slightly optimistic lyrics, but such things are knocked for six with the album closer, Vitamins, where he decrees "Really not mad at anyone, you're just mad at the world." While some may be miffed at Jay's slow progress, it can't be denied that he's one of the finest protest songwriters in the world. Mix that with his smooth delivery and it's easy to overlook the messages of a world collapsing that he gives, his forlorn view of a society that chooses the wrong road that he has to travel it. If he can see the faults, why can't we and if we don't, then he'll point them out until sense prevails. It seems that while Wilco revived Woody Guthrie, Jay chooses to write the modern versions and that's nothing to criticise a man for, I mean, it's not a crime, a!

Laurence Arnold
CWAS #9 - Winter 2002