Son Volt, Okemah and the Melody of Riot

Son Volt, Okemah and the Melody of Riot

There’s something comforting about the Son Volt sound — it’s warm, ragged, and reassuringly familiar. The guitars rumble and scratch the way guitars are supposed to, Jay Farrar’s smoke-scarred voice climbs and falls, and the the band behind drives the machine like the whole thing’s cruising down one of the highways Farrar always seems to be singing about.

Thankfully, now that the faddists have moved on to other things and “y’allternative” and “alt-country” seem to’ve been semi-retired from the music-crit lexicon, with Okemah and the Melody of Riot we can actually recognize Son Volt for the sublime roots-rockers they truly are. “Country”? Nah — there are hints of it here and there, sure, but that’s really just lazy pigeonholing on the part of folks like yours truly. The soul of country pioneers like Johnny Cash or Gram Parsons is part of the band’s DNA, absolutely, but Okemah, the “band”‘s first release since 1998’s Wide Swing Tremolo, is much closer kin to the raw, throaty rock of Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, with a fair dose of folkies Pete Seeger, Farrar hero Woody Guthrie (after whose home town the album partly takes its name), and Phil Ochs.

I say “band,” by the way, since the original incarnation of Son Volt is long dead-and-gone, bandleader Farrar having replaced ’em with a whole new lineup of rock veterans. These days, Son Volt is Farrar, drummer Dave Bryson (formerly of slowcore-Americana act Canyon and, before that, hardcore/post-hardcore outfits Damnation A.D. and Bluetip), bassist Andrew Duplantis (Bob Mould/Meat Puppets/Jon Dee Graham/Alejandro Escovedo/a zillion other people), and guitarist Brad Rice (NC roots-rockers the Backsliders/Ryan Adams/Tift Merritt). Pedal steel guy Eric Heywood steps back in to help out, but gone are the band’s old drummer, bassist, and guitarist. Son Volt was always basically Farrar’s vehicle, but now that’s pretty much official, apparently.

Getting back to the disc, Seeger, Guthrie, and Ochs seem to rise to the surface more than usual on Okemah — which makes sense when you consider that the album’s probably the most overtly political thing Farrar and company have crafted to date. No “give peace a chance” singalongs, no, but there’re plenty of subtle musings on the failings of the system, the destructive nature of war, and the plight of the middle class, like opener “Bandages & Scars” and “Endless War,” as well as masked jabs at the rich and powerful, like “Jet Pilot” (think Texas Air National Guard, circa the early ’70s). There’s even a powerful elegy (I think) to those lost on September 11th with “Atmosphere,” which serves a quiet, delicately sweet high point of the album as a whole.

Admittedly, Jay Farrar’s lyrics are oblique at best, but that’s really an asset here, because it lets the listener read in whatever they think’s there, rather than just sit and listen to somebody rant and rail. The head-shaking despair is palpable, particularly on the aforementioned “Endless War” and “Atmosphere,” where Farrar ruefully sings “Getting that old time feeling again / Madmen on both sides of the fence.” That said, there’s also a vitality and optimism burning throughout, as on “Who” (which could practically be an R.E.M. song) and the two-part “World Waits For You,” which starts bleak and quiet but slowly turns a hopeful face towards the dawn. The optimism and energy is helped by the muted snarl of guitars, the likes of which I haven’t heard since the last time I put on Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend (or, yes, Son Volt’s Trace). The lower points on the disc are generally the quieter, less propulsive tracks (with the exception of “Atmosphere” and the piano-heavy “World Waits For You”), songs like “Ipecac” and “Medication,” both of which are decent musically but just kind of flounder in place ’til the next barnburner comes roaring in.

Oh, and then there’s the other side of the CD. This is a DualDisc release, which means that one side of Okemah is CD audio and the other’s a full-fledged DVD, with the same songs in “enhanced stereo” (something that only really matters if you’ve got a 5:1 surround sound system), live clips of the band doing its thing, and a little documentary on the making of the album. Which was a little odd, I have to say — the live performances are neat to see and hear, definitely, but the on-camera interview with Jay Farrar himself was weird. For one thing, despite being a fan of the music, I’d never actually seen the guy before, myself, and was expecting some rough-around-the-edges, Steve Earle-looking fella chain-smoking and sipping Bourbon in between the Q&As, not the quiet, relatively clean-cut family man who looks to be about my age. A little off-putting, to say the least. The DVD also suffers a bit from Farrar’s low-key, laconic nature — at one point my wife observed that he didn’t look excited doing anything, not even performing or recording his own songs. But hey, if that’s the way the guy is, that’s how it goes; better that than he be a Tommy Lee-style motormouth… And even with the overall reserve, his discussion of the album’s origins and aims is pretty illuminating, so I shouldn’t complain.

In the end, Okemah doesn’t break much new ground — but hell, who cares? If I want to hear “experimental” rock and half-listenable noise, I’ve got a wide selection of albums to choose from. Lately, I’d rather turn on something that’s warm and “basic,” a soft smile to wake up to, a real-life growl to give voice to the things that maybe we want to say but don’t. Hearing Okemah and the Melody of Riot feels like watching the sun rise slowly over the backroads and highways of America, knowing that the world and the people in it keep on going no matter what.

(Transmit Sound -- P.O. Box 3141, Jersey City, NJ. 07303;; Legacy Recordings --; Son Volt --
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Tuesday, January 24th, 2006. Filed under Reviews.

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