By Mabel Suen
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Laconic. Taciturn. Oblique. Such adjectives pop up with predictable frequency in articles about Jay Farrar, whose old band, Uncle Tupelo, can be credited with (or cursed for) launching the alt-country movement of the early '90s. Rock critics are, for the most part, too busy blowing Farrar's former bandmate Jeff Tweedy (now of Wilco) -- a much more prolific generator of quotable quotes -- to bother figuring out what Farrar's about, and Farrar doesn't make it easy for us. He's very polite, especially for a rock star, and he's not averse to answering questions, but he doesn't reveal much about himself or demystify his creative process, nor does he regale his interrogator with funny stories calculated to show what a regular guy he is. "I don't come up with some master plan as to how I want to present myself," he admits over lunch at a Lebanese deli in the University City Loop.
For Farrar, the only form of self-presentation that matters occurs in the recording studio or onstage, not in the ephemeral world of newsprint. After four albums with Uncle Tupelo and three with Son Volt, Farrar has experienced firsthand the fickleness of rock critics. The first Son Volt CD, 1995's Trace, topped dozens of best-of lists (most impressively, Elvis Costello's), in marked contrast to Wilco's debut, the pleasant but inconsequential A.M. Subsequent Son Volt records didn't fare as well, and Farrar's star power began to decline as Tweedy's swelled to the point of absurdity. When influential bands break up, music journalists like to set up rivalries, foster intrigue, explore dichotomies -- they did it with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and it's certainly nothing new -- but it seems more than a little unfair that they're damning Farrar's first solo album, Sebastopol, with faint praise just because they've gone so gaga over Tweedy's every move. New Times critic Robert Wilonsky, for example, magnanimously conceded in a recent review of Sebastopol that it's better than previous Farrar efforts insofar as it doesn't render the listener comatose; it's probably not Farrar's fault he's been left in the dust by Tweedy, the future of rock & roll, the 21st century's answer to Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen and Paul Westerberg. Poor old Jay: He just keeps sounding like himself. How unfashionable!
To his credit, Farrar probably doesn't give a rat's ass what any of us thinks about his records or those of his former bandmate, nor does he seem especially concerned with the question of who's leading in the great race to impress the chattering class. He'd clearly prefer to let his music do his talking. And, fortunately for him, Sebastopol is a beautiful, daring and uncompromising album, one that, when taken on its own terms, easily ranks among his best work. It isn't so much a departure as a logical progression: The last Son Volt album, Wide Swing Tremolo, also boasted unexpected instruments, souped-up guitars in alternate and slack-key tunings, even the occasional drum loop, but never in so much profusion. Where once these elements were interesting flourishes, now they're an integral part of each song's composition. With Son Volt on hiatus and his contract with Warner Bros. amicably dissolved, Farrar has a deal with established indie Artemis and the opportunity to collaborate with an impressive array of guest musicians, including Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Steve Drozd (Flaming Lips), Matt Pence (Centro-matic) and Jon Wurster (Superchunk).
"After I'd written the songs, I started to think about which musicians would work out best for each song," Farrar explains. "It was a mixture of people I'd worked with before and people whose work I admired. In the case of Gillian and David, I'd toured with them before. Jon Wurster I'd met a few times over the years and liked what he did. Matt Pence I met while Centro-matic was recording some songs [at Farrar's studio/rehearsal space, Jajouka, in Millstadt, Ill.]. And Steve Drozd is someone that [co-producer] John Agnello brought into the fold. John asked me what I'd been listening to, and I told him [the Flaming Lips'] The Soft Bulletin; he also knew what I was looking for in terms of keyboard arrangements."
Although Farrar had a general idea of what he wanted the record to sound like and recorded preliminary demos to share with prospective collaborators, he let the eventual arrangements unfold over time in the studio. "Some of the parts the musicians brought with them or developed did sort of change from my initial demo versions," he notes. "On 'Feel Free,' Jon Wurster sort of came up with that funky beat; the double-tracking of the drums kind of gives it that Grateful Dead vibe," he laughs. "I primarily worked with one musician at a time, so it allowed the songs to evolve at a slower pace, with more time to think about what instrumentation to put where, whereas with Son Volt, we were mostly trying to capture the essence of what we'd been doing on the road."
In addition to the all-star lineup, Farrar's decision to use alternate guitar tunings influenced the sound of the record and contributes to its haunting, languorous quality. "It took the writing in directions that it might not have gone with standard tunings," Farrar admits. "I'd been listening to some Hawaiian slack-key-guitar players, and they list the tunings on their records. I tried those tunings for a song or two. For the rest, I either applied the tunings from somewhere else -- some came from books and some of them I just came upon by happenstance, just from experimenting until I found something I liked. Sometimes I'd just pick up a guitar that had gone out of tune and just try it out."
This experimental tendency informs every aspect of the record, from the enigmatic title ("I just liked the sound of it," Farrar explains) to the lyrics, which, in typical Farrar fashion, don't lend themselves to reductive analysis. Farrar writes in an opaque, stream-of-consciousness style, using unusual, polysyllabic words in a consistently abstract way, producing weird symbolist shards that would give Stéphane Mallarmé a run for his money. Who could parse a phrase like "habitats of the idle are the last to know" or "pell-mell from the committee of welcoming" without seeming ridiculous? Anti-narrative, anti-confessional, anti-everything that the singer/songwriter tradition would seem to dictate, Farrar's lyrics resist interpretation, augmenting the music's mystery rather than elucidating its meaning. "I don't really like storytelling styles or straight narrative," Farrar remarks. "I write fragments and piece them together. People like Kerouac and so forth used that approach, and it's one I've tried to make work for me. I try not to do what I've done before, which means that it seems even more oblique sometimes."
Some of the lyrical references will seem obscure to out-of-towners, but they'll make sense to St. Louisans versed in our city's rich past. Farrar, who's lived in South St. Louis for the past four years and intends to stay, is something of a local-history buff. "Outside the Door," one of Sebastopol's saddest and loveliest tracks, commemorates a St. Louis lost: "Heard about a Gaslight Square/Heard about down deep Morgan/Heard you can't find Mill Creek anymore." For Farrar, St. Louis resonates with the ghostly hum of forgotten minstrels, less a place than a palimpsest of demolished neighborhoods and abandoned streets. Time, its traveling hands, its inexorable march, is and always has been his great subject. It's no surprise that he'd make his home here, in a city whose beauty resides in its gentle decay, its graceful failure. "I like it here," Farrar says emphatically. "The grand old architecture is one of the things that draws me here." When he's not touring, Farrar and his wife, Monica, like to check out one of our town's living legends -- Bennie Smith, or, if they're lucky enough to catch one of his rare performances, Henry Townsend. "The people are real here. I like that aspect," Farrar says.
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