For better and often worse, one of the most influential bands of the last decade has been Uncle Tupelo. Steeped in slacker twangs, bleary singing, and an earnest appreciation of American roots music, the Illinois band’s four albums (released between 1990 and 1993) pioneered the genre now known as alternative country (a.k.a. y’allternative or No Depression, the latter derived from the title of Uncle Tupelo’s first album). Uncle Tupelo thumbed their indie-rock noses at Nashville and took their cues from the wasted-on-the-way country rock of Neil Young and the Gram Parsons-led Flying Burrito Brothers. (As with the new generation of Mohawked punks, here was another batch of musicians who felt rock peaked in 1976.) Although Uncle Tupelo crumbled three years ago, their spirit lives on in a slew of bands, a magazine, even a cookbook.
If only Uncle Tupelo were a better influence. Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, Tupelo’s leaders, had the backwoods-grunge look and sound down cold. But they barely seemed capable of writing a memorable song, preferring to get by on attitude and mood. The same goes for most of Uncle Tupelo’s peers and successors. Ten years of alt-country have produced only three minor gems: the Jayhawks’ winsome Hollywood Town Hall (1992), the Bottle Rockets’ rougher, sawdust-caked The Brooklyn Side (1994), and Trace (1995), the melancholic first album by Farrar’s post-Tupelo band, Son Volt. Even the sharpest alt-country feels cornball and conservative. (Wilco, Tweedy’s new group, suffer from a cloying smugness on their two albums, and Tweedy has taken to warbling like a leaner Jerry Garcia.)
Farrar’s dark-night-of-the-soul searching epitomizes one of alternative country’s most endearing qualities. With his poignantly sad, note-dipping drawl, he seems to know how it feels to drive overnight to the next gig and play before yet another adoring but small audience. That beautiful-loser resignation permeated Trace. But on their second album, Straightaways, Son Volt sound asleep at the wheel. Farrar sings as if he’s still wiping the sleep from his eyes, and the band plods through a series of songs that feel unfinished or meandering. Even highlights like the twangcore of ”Cemetery Savior” are toner-depleted photocopies of Trace.
”Been Set Free,” narrated by a woman murdered by her lover, and ”Way Down Watson,” about a wrecking-ball operator, both aim for rural mythology. Even with such straightforward narrative structures, Farrar circles around the tales; here at least, a little Nashville-songwriter savvy would’ve worked wonders. There’s a telling difference between being enigmatic and merely vague, and Son Volt cross that highway divider too often.
Like the sounds emerging from the Americana scene into which they’re also lumped, Son Volt make music so determined to be pure, austere, and authentic — whatever that means at a time when rap and sample-driven techno could be called modern-day folk music — that they drain all the spark and emotion from their songs. C