Jay Farrar -- or more precisely his original band, Uncle Tupelo -- cast a long shadow over the last generation of rock and country, releasing an album whose classic status is so assured that there's a whole sub-genre named after it, in addition to one of the finest band-breaking-up albums in the history of popular music. In the immediate aftermath of that breakup, the smart money would have been on Farrar to become the successful one; while Jeff Tweedy contributed some brilliant material to the Tupelo corpus, the band's soul almost indisputably belonged to Farrar. His first Son Volt album, Trace
, proved that he had lost none of his talent or fire in the divorce.
Then things started going all weird: Farrar and company, losing their way a bit, released two interesting if deeply flawed albums, and...well, everybody knows what happened with Tweedy. Now, with Son Volt apparently a memory, Farrar has created a new record label and inaugurated it with the release of his second solo album. If his earlier solo effort, Sebastopol, saw him continuing in the more experimental vein of the later Son Volt output, Terroir Blues is a return to more traditional empty plains-evoking acoustic tones. Oh, and it's great.
As Farrar is gifted with perhaps the finest voice of his generation as far as for plaintive, aching evocation is concerned, it's hard to resist Terroir Blues from its opening verses: "Who's got you down / thinking the best roads lead out of town?" It's classic Farrar: sad, resilient, aching to move, stuck in place by his roots. The reason his Americana sounds so unforced relates to the artful yet unflashy way in which he delivers it. Unconsciously, it's almost inevitable to assume that this disc, with its deliberately roughed-up, unproduced-sounding production, was recorded on the porch of a windswept Wyoming shack.
Farrar has interspersed his homier compositions with a series of impressionistic back-loop pieces dismissively titled "Space Junk"; while they tend to serve as musical palate cleansers, they also develop some of the layering and overlapping sounds he squeezes together on "Hard Is The Fall", a pedal-steel-driven track, and the somehow anachronistic-sounding sequenced rhythm track of "Fool King's Crown. While the experiment is no longer drowning out the songs, as might have been said for his recent output, it's still coloring the edges of his sound, making it all the richer in the process.
"Hanging On To You", one of the album's highlights, sounds as if Farrar has been spending lots of time listening to the same records that inspired Lyle Lovett to record his Texas songwriters' tribute Step Inside This House. The drums, rumbling only at certain syncopated moments, add tension and lift to the folk/countryish core, and the lyrics' wistful codependence vibrate between hopeless and happy. If that version's not enough for you, there's another: Farrar closes the album with alternate versions of four songs. In the case of "Hanging", the most noticeable difference is the exchange of steel guitar for piano as the most prominent melodic instrument. Similarly, he removes the layered production from the second version of "Hard Is The Fall".
Barring some major re-alignment of the indie-rock stars, Jay Farrar is probably doomed to be remembered as the solid singer-songwriter who never made it as big as his former Uncle Tupelo bandmate when he struck out on his own. It sounds like he knows that, he's grappled with that, and he's come out more self-assured, more in control of his songwriting gifts, and with more to say than he has in a while. Terroir Blues is an excellent album released by a man who knows he's at the height of his powers, whether anyone else knows it or not.