Sound of Lies
Anyone who grew up in a small town knows it's hard to reinvent yourself in one. If the world of popular music has a small town, it's the largely insular retro country-rock movement called No Depression, and the pressure to conform to expectations within it has been amplified recently by interest from mainstream music-industry carpetbaggers, who are combing the town for something easy to define, package, and sell.
Into this make-or-break environment two of the genre's keystone bands, Son Volt (a direct descendant of No Depression deity Uncle Tupelo) and the Jayhawks (who predate Uncle Tupelo by four years but were adopted by the movement when it coalesced), have released their latest works, neither of which bodes too well for the No Depression brand. Son Volt has succumbed to the pressure; the group's new Straightaways displays an overly tedious obeisance to country-rock customs. The Jayhawks, on the other hand, have simply said, "Fuck this shit," and with Sound of Lies they've followed Uncle Tupelo's renegade son, Wilco, right out of town.
Against Son Volt's complacency the Jayhawks can't help but sound exciting--rejuvenated, actually. Their last album, Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995), sold decently, but they ran up quite a bill for its lengthy production, and the pressure to recoup those astronomical costs crippled the band. In the fall of 1995 one of the two main songwriters, Mark Olson, bailed, and following his departure the band called it quits. Six months later, however, the remaining members (bored, one might guess) found themselves wandering into the same rehearsal space and before long were at work on a new album. Gary Louris quickly became the primary tunesmith, and without the immaculately sweet Olson-Louris harmonies (think McGuinn-Parsons) sopping every tune, the band's country-rock leanings simply dropped away, leaving a thrilling mix of ultracatchy pop, sharp folk rock, and edgy, swirling psychedelia.
The new Jayhawks aren't completely unrelated to the old: Louris sang half of the time in the past, and the guitar playing on the band's last two albums had some muted psych overtones, but Sound of Lies is without a doubt the work of a band unfettered by its own history. Louris does express some bitterness about it--he sings "This traveling band was not well received" on the opener, "The Man Who Loved Life," and on "Big Star," which is not an homage to Alex Chilton's band but a bracing portrait of stubborn success chasing set to crunching "Girlfriend"-esque pop, he blatantly admits, "I couldn't get arrested if I tried" and "Grape's bitter"--but musically, the Jayhawks have moved on.
Whereas the band's last few albums had Olson, Louris, and founding bassist Marc Perlman supported by a rotating cast of musicians, Sound of Lies benefits from the chemistry and tightness of a working band. Drummer Tim O'Reagan and keyboardist Karen Grotberg both worked on Green Grass, so they've been playing in the Jayhawks for a couple years now; former Run Westy Run and current Golden Smog guitarist Kraig Johnson played second guitar on the record and has subsequently joined the band. O'Reagan even wrote and sang on "Bottomless Cup," a loose and languid love song that makes up for unspectacular lyrics ("I think I let you down / I could use you around") with striking harmonies and a beautifully dusky melody.
The 70s loom heavy on the album, from the California soft-rock guitar solo on "Trouble" to the flange on the dopey "Haywire," but for every such time travel there's a well-placed experiment. "Dying on the Vine" is built on Perlman's insistent, almost maddening strummed bass line and O'Reagan's relentless distended drum shuffle; the tension from this repetition is gloriously released with a lush chorus. Apart from some scattered indulgences, Sound of Lies is an impressive reinvention, and one Son Volt could take a cue from.
An optimist might describe Straightaways as a reaffirmation of Jay Farrar's musical beliefs, but in reality it's just more (and less) of the same. The lugubrious beauty of Son Volt's 1995 debut album, Trace, had little to do with its stylistic conservatism. Farrar's sullen voice crawled through his mournful tunes with elegant, pretty pathos, and though the familiarity of the melodies and song structures complemented his gravity, they also stood alone. On the new album he sounds even more mopey, and in terms of musical ideas, the band sounds practically moribund. In the album's bio Farrar is quoted as saying, "I do feel this album is an extension of our last one," but if Trace and Straightaways had come from the same sessions, the songs on the latter would undoubtedly be the outtakes.
The band--guitarist Dave Boquist, bassist Jim Boquist, and drummer Mike Heidorn--had never played live before recording Trace, and it showed in the somewhat listless performance on that album. But they've been playing out for over two years now, so how to explain the lifeless feel of the new record? There's a pervasive flatness to the proceedings, a suggestion that the band's creative process is a rather mechanical one. The album has its moments of forlorn beauty and the band's forgiving fans won't have a problem with it, but in the larger scheme of things Son Volt has run aground, while the Jayhawks have just set sail.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Jayhawks by Marina Chavez, photo of Son Volt by Bonnie Butler Murphy, album cover, Son Volt "Straightaways".