Music » Record Reviews

Short Cuts

The dean of alt-country hits town for a lesson.


Jay Farrar, (Artemis)

With Sebastopol, his first solo album, Jay Farrar may have finally found the way he most enjoys working: alone. The famously shy Farrar abruptly abandoned his seminal alt-country band, Uncle Tupelo, in 1994 after four great albums, including the industry-launching debut No Depression. He then went on to form Son Volt.

Son Volt's first album, Trace, was subtly powerful and pure Farrar: feedback-heavy electric guitar, broken rhythms, and a bit of thunder and sadness in the lyrical delivery. Straightaways, which followed, was a fine album, but some felt it was a weary rehash lacking the forlorn roots-rock fire of Trace. Wide Swing Tremolo came next, redeeming the band with its surprisingly varied rock-and-roll approach. But absent -- or merely lurking deep in the background -- from Tremolo was the edgy country sound that had always been the foundation of Farrar's songs.

Sebastopol arrives ready to challenge those who would criticize Farrar, however mildly, for always pursuing a more secure state of isolation and sticking to the same groove, but it's unclear whether or not it can win the fight. The album is a marked departure as far as instrumentation goes. Keyboards and strings drive many of the tunes, sometimes even relegating Farrar's fuzzy guitar to the backseat. As Sebastopol courts pop audiences of increasingly eclectic tastes, its lyrics express many of the same ideas that Farrar has milked before. The opening tune, "Feel Free," is a good example with its short circus-organ intro launching a summery guitar rhythm over which Farrar laments breezily, "Breathe in all the diesel fumes/Admire the concrete landscaping/And doesn't it feel free?/The world is gonna burn up 4 billion years from now/If it doesn't happen anytime soon."

Much of Sebastopol is reminiscent of early '80s R.E.M. Farrar's raucous ruralist seems to have been subjugated by a newly sober softy capable of such lovely tunes as "Drain" and the tamboura-inflected "Vitamins." There is also what would seem to be a very uncharacteristic apologia in "Different Eyes": "It's more a question of different eyes/Looking in the same old places." Indeed, Farrar has changed, but, in his eyes, the environment that shaped him is slow to do the same. So it seems he has returned to the same dark mine for Sebastopol, but his gift to us is a more colorful, more highly polished jewel than we've seen from him before. This good album may be the first step toward a great solo career. -- Jeremy Spencer

Grade: B+

Jay Farrar will be at the Young Avenue Deli on Tuesday, October 9th.

Rain On Lens

(Smog) (Drag City)

Bill Callahan, the principal figure behind the musical entity previously known as Smog, has taken a cue from his idol, Prince, and rechristened himself (Smog). I let e.e. cummings get away with grammatical chicanery because he drove a frickin' rusty ambulance over mine fields in WWI for Christmas' sake. But what has (Smog) done to deserve such latitude? He makes a handful of records that make Chicago scenesters feel like sensitive Emily Dickinsons for a couple of minutes and all of a damn sudden he thinks he can call himself the everlovin' King of England. This parenthesis gambit, worthy of a high school editrix's Goth-verse chapbook, is coming from a man well into the thick parts of his 30s.

But in these times, it's hard not to cut folks a little slack. So what if he wants to call himself (Smog)? Lord knows he's helped me feel more than a little sorry for myself over the years. In the early '90s, he reigned alongside Sebadoh's Lou Barlow as kings of the rickety lo-fi dominion. Their subjects were emaciated suburban striplings bartering in self-pity and indie-rock Florence Nightingales -- who really should have known better -- trying to salve all of the little lost boys. But with the thin-skinned, spontaneous weeping that we have all been experiencing lately, it seems a cinch that blubbering pity, for ourselves and others, is sure to be back in vogue.

Rain On Lens, his ninth long-player, struggles against cynicism and seems to focus more positively on the comforts of the hearth and the buttress of companionship, which is a nice change from his usual messy breakup songs. But it wouldn't be a Smog record without a little tentative misanthropy. The subject of "Short Drive" is a cross-country road trip wherein Callahan points out to the listener the ubiquitous enemies along the way. Thankfully, however, even this wistful tale of paranoiac alienation ends optimistically: "And though this that seems ongoing/Ever flowing/Will one day when we look back/Just be a short drive/Made back in our endless lives."

-- David Dunlap Jr.

Grade: B+

(Smog) will be at the Hi-Tone Café on Sunday, October 7th, with Drag City labelmate and former Royal Trux frontman Neil Hagerty.

Listening Log

The Worst of Black Box Recorder -- Black Box Recorder (Jetset): Their latest new album, The Facts of Life, is one of the year's very best. This collection of B-sides, remixes, and covers is more cool, literate, and subtly emotional Brit pop for those who just can't get enough of singer Sarah Nixey's sardonic detachment. ("Start As You Mean To Go On," "Brutality," "Seasons in the Sun")

Grade: B+

City High -- City High (Booga Basement/Interscope): Two guys and one girl who sing as effortlessly as they rap, this Wyclef Jean-produced group is the Fugees for post-high-school everykids, Ricki Lake watchers, and armchair sociologists. ("Sista," "What Would You Do," "City High Anthem")

Grade: A-

Miss E So Addictive -- Missy Elliott (Elektra): Her first album is a classic, her second a bitter disappointment. On this third, guest-star-heavy effort the music is back in full, but the charm is still missing. Another promising career corrupted by corporate rap. ("Get Ur Freak On," "Lick Shots," "One Minute Man" [remix bonus track, featuring Jay-Z])

Grade: B+

Bleed American -- Jimmy Eat World (Dreamworks): Clean-cut punk-pop for positive thinkers. ("A Praise Chorus," "The Middle")

Grade: B

The Dirty Story: The Best of ODB -- Ol' Dirty Bastard (Elektra): If you already own Return To the 36 Chambers and N***a Please, this Wu-Tang Clan court jester's only two proper albums and the source of nine of The Dirty Story's 11 tracks, then this wildly premature "best of" is consumer fraud of the highest order. But if not, then this is a great summation of one of hip hop's most outrageously entertaining artists, a deeply disturbed but also deeply funny song-and-dance man who spends more time in and out of jail than in a recording studio. Nobody sings off-key with more exciting results. ("Shimmy Shimmy Ya," "Got Your Money," "Recognize," "Cold Blooded")

Grade: A-

Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions -- James "Blood" Ulmer (Label M): Black-rock skronk master Ulmer joins another New Hendrix, ex-Living Colour axeman Vernon Reid, for a three-day Sun session that lovingly rips apart the Willie Dixon and John Lee Hooker songbooks, even if the very best tracks come from other sources (Howlin' Wolf, Daylie Holmes). Rivals Buddy Guy's Sweet Tea as the best blues record I've heard this year. ("I Asked For Water [She Gave Me Gasoline]," "Too Lazy To Work, Too Nervous To Steal," "Dimples")

Grade: A-

A Break From the Norm -- Various Artists (Restless): Big-beat celeb Fatboy Slim offers a mix tape of obscure songs he's sampled on his own records -- and it's a success twice-over. First, it's a primer on the recombinant bricolage of DJ music -- put the Just Brothers' 1972 "Sliced Tomatoes" up against the John Barry Seven's 1960 "Beat Girl" and you can see where Slim's historic "Rockerfella Skank" came from. It's also just a first-rate mix of cool songs you've never heard before. ("Take Yo' Praise" -- Camille Yarbrough; "I Can't Write Left-Handed" -- Bill Withers; "Beatbox Wash [Rinse It Remix]" -- Dust Junkys; "I'll Do a Little Bit More" -- The Olympics) -- Chris Herrington

Grade: B+

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