Recording of April 1997: Straightaway

SON VOLT: Straightaway
Warner Bros. 46518-2 (CD). 1997. Brian Paulson, Son Volt, prods. TT: 40:27
Music: *****
Sonics: *****

The more time goes on, the harder it is to believe that Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy were ever in Uncle Tupelo together. As their solo careers progress—in Son Volt and Wilco, respectively—the stylistic chasm between these two former roommates and co-leaders widens. The split between the more pop-oriented (Tweedy) and the more rough-hewn and punky (Farrar) is reflected exactly in the ever-expanding horde of bands who've jumped into the school of country rock that Tweedy and Farrar unwittingly begat—a form of alt-country named after the Uncle Tupelo album, No Depression.

The release of Straightaway completes the second round of albums from the diverging halves of Uncle Tupelo. While Wilco made a huge stylistic turn into undistinguished '70s guitar rock on their ambitious sophomore album, Being There, Jay Farrar has stayed the course, deepening and enriching what has surely become the Son Volt sound. Reticent to a fault—he's the world's worst interview—Farrar's discs speak eloquently for him.

As was true on Trace, the band's debut, Neil Young is again the major touchstone—but this time it's Young's lyricism rather than his guitar wash that's evoked. Better songwriting and arranging are the first things that jump off this record, headed by two stone classics: the upbeat, rising chorus opener, "Caryatid Easy" (as final proof of this album's ambition, "caryatid" is defined by Webster's as "a draped female figure supporting an entablature"); and the gorgeous "Last Minute Shakedown," which opens with an exquisite lap-steel figure from Son Volt's multi-instrumentalist Dave Boquist.

One of the best legacies of Uncle Tupelo is that both Tweedy and Farrar have each kept a player in their respective bands who plays banjo, fiddle, guitar, and anything else with a string. Unlike Tweedy, who has de-emphasized Wilco's more countrified elements, Farrar continues to feature banjo ("No More Parades"), pedal steel ("Creosote"), and harmonica ("Way Down Watson"). Only here, the creaky, noisy, raw-earth country-rock of Trace has been imaginatively fired and glazed into something sleeker, something much more satisfied and sure of its own vision.

Farrar's yearny, deep sinus drone has become the band's most identifiable trait—an atmospheric, almost mournful moan that's a perfect fit with his translucent, melancholy lyrics. If he tried to sing "Luck Be a Lady" (an event I'd pay good money to hear), he'd fall flat. But one of the strongest elements of Farrar's improving songwriting is his awareness of his own voice as his songs' primary instrument. On Straightaway, the intuition between writer and singer is better than ever.

It's great to hear a full-on, feedback-filled rock record that sounds this good. The separation between instruments never fails, and the voices rarely disappear into the mix.

Finally we get back to those unfair but inevitable comparisons. (Hey, if you're responsible for launching a genre, not to mention a magazine—No Depression—then a little scrutiny is the least you can endure.) In terms of writing enchanting melodies and evincing energy above a pulse, Farrar may never equal his ex-bandmate. But on Straightaway he has refined his own bittersweet style into a work of unvarnished beauty. Everything here—from the quality of the playing to the careful recording quality—is in sharper focus and awash in honest inspiration. Even guitar-and-voice-only tunes like "Creosote" or the outlaw tale "Been Set Free" stick with you.

It's time to stop the ridiculous comparisons between Son Volt and Wilco, but, just for the record: This disc, combined with Wilco's recent stumble, makes it a dead heat.—Robert Baird

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