The first new Son Volt full-length in seven years, Okemah and the Melody of Riot boasts exactly one original member: Jay Farrar, the band’s founder, frontman, and songwriter. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After contributing a track to an Alejandro Escovedo tribute compilation, Farrar, Mike Heidorn, and Jim and Dave Boquist planned to release a fourth Son Volt album. Then, mere weeks before the first recording session was scheduled to take place, Farrar and the other musicians hit a contractual wall and broke up for good. The Escovedo cover, meant to herald the quartet’s phoenixlike resurrection, became the band’s swan song — or so it would seem. Rather than record another solo album with a rotating cast of guest musicians or reconvene Canyon (his backing band on last year’s live set Stone, Steel and Bright Lights), Farrar made the controversial decision to re-form Son Volt, recruiting former Canyon drummer Dave Bryson, ex-Meat Puppets bassist Andrew Duplantis, and alt-country veteran Brad Rice on guitar. Loyal fans were understandably confused by the switcheroo: If Son Volt was just another vehicle for Farrar’s “rock persona,” as one press release clumsily phrased it, what distinguishes a Son Volt album from a solo Jay Farrar CD?
A single spin of Okemah should put this pesky question to rest. SV-Mach II rocks like a rock band, not like a rock persona, and despite the absence of Heidorn and the brothers Boquist, it sounds more like vintage Son Volt than solo Farrar. With its opening volley of fuzz and twang, “Bandages and Scars” announces that this is a guitar record, all ragged glory and crackling amps. Although organ, piano, and harmonica surface occasionally, guitars dominate the CD: They screech and buzz, howl and sigh, sing and squall — sometimes they even impersonate sitars. The absence of synthesizers and tape loops is not a step backward for Farrar, whose recent experiments in sound collage have irritated some dyed-in-the-flannel Tupelophiles; if anything, the standard guitars/bass/drums template makes his iconoclasm more striking. He hasn’t abandoned his signature tunings, his slippery vocal melodies, his stream-of-consciousness lyrics, but he’s grounding them in familiar soil. It’s like stumbling over a spaceship in the middle of the prairie.
Galvanized by his band’s rock heroics, Farrar sings with a new urgency, his burnished moan sturdy and defiant one moment, bruised and wobbly the next. It soars and swerves with a wild litheness on “Afterglow 61,” a mercury-laced meta-anthem that pays cryptic homage to Mark Twain, Leadbelly, and Bob Dylan. On the scathing but sorrowful Bush dis “Jet Pilot,” he delivers the verses in a guileless falsetto and then bellows the chorus over a sudden onslaught of guitars.
Although his lyrics will never be described as straightforward, Okemah finds Farrar more direct than he’s been in years. The album’s title refers to the birthplace of Woody Guthrie, and it’s a worried man’s CD, dense with topics that should trouble any conscientious world citizen: the endless war, the corrupt system, the toxic atmosphere, the uncertain future. For Farrar, the father of two young children, the only hope for salvation lies in the creative impulse, the “vinyl disc with power to hypnotize” that unites three generations in “Gramophone,” the “Six String Belief” embodied by “rock and & roll, alive and kicking.” Let the dirt-rockers and happy-haired fashion boys strike their cynical poses; revolution, after all, is wasted on the young. In redeeming the dreaded dad-rock tag, Son Volt has done something far more radical. As mature as it is revelatory, Okemah is music to blast from the minivan.