The story of the alt-country scene was, for the most part, the story of second-rate and third-rate talents mining a great idea for much less than it was worth.
When the seminal and grossly-overrated Uncle Tupelo broke up, the two principal vesicles thereof started other bands: Jeff Tweedy started Wilco, whose critical reputation spirals ever upward as Tweedy's talent vanishes into the bottomless pit of his misdirected ambitions. Jay Farrar founded Son Volt and hit the skids real quick, but before he wore out his welcome, he made Trace.
Trace is Son Volt's first album. It's about evenly divided between generic rote "rockers" that all sound alike and too-serious countryish songs that all sound alike. The critics loved it to pieces. All of the songs but one are instantly forgettable, but on a first listen it sounds pretty good. That's the trouble with "rock critics": They listen to a record twice and move on to the next. Nice little records like this get rave reviews because they're user-friendly right from the get-go; it takes eight or ten listens to understand how utterly hollow and redundant the thing is. Oh, it's well put together: The production is juicy and clear. The drums and acoustic guitars sound round and "alive" like they ought to. The band is sharp and tight. Utility musician Dave Boquist fills the margins with delicious colors and flavors: Guitars, fiddle, banjo, lap steel, dobro. He sounds so good that Jeff Tweedy went out and hired two guys just like him and made Being There, the only good record Wilco will ever make (Max Johnston, the more utile of the two, promptly moved on and joined the Gourds; the other, Jay Bennett, stuck around to help bury everything good about the band as deep as they could dig). Being There looks to me like a blatant attempt to woo the critics away from this record here. It did, too. It's a stunning album, if you disregard the generic rote "rockers" they threw in for filler. Tweedy was great before he tried to become Brian Wilson.
Farrar's got two tricks as a songwriter, but only one as a singer: Every single song gets the same faux-"gritty", fake "wistful", hyper-sincere treatment. He's got a pleasant tone, maybe a bit like an alt-country Stephen Merritt, and his phrasing is okay, but it's all the same. It's a schtick rather than a style, and it's boring. An ad exec at Starbucks or J. Crew would call this stuff "authentic". Not authentic anything in particular; just... "authentic". I guess that's what the critics thought, too. It even fooled me for the first three listens.
The lyrics are an incompetent conglomerate composed of featherweight profundities and cliches, mostly Paleozoic in age: "One-way streets and square one, answers don't come from any one direction." "Live free or die." "The rhythm of the river that will remain." (Oh, please...) "The travelling hands of time." "It's now or never." "Only dogs have their day." Yada yada yada. It's all about driving and rootlessness and staying up late: Very Serious Reflections on a Hard Life, okay. It takes real skill and no little inspiration to find anything interesting in such obvious material; see for example Uncle Merle on "White Line Fever". It also takes a willingness to go for the throat sometimes, but Farrar is too mannered and buttoned-down for that. He succeeds in evoking something about a life lived on interstates in flyover country, but the sounds and images are too broad and too pat. Welcome to the Kountry Kitschen: It's J.D. Souther with diner coffee and cigarettes instead of quaaludes and coke. These songs are artsy black and white photographs straight off the walls of upscale chain stores at your local shopping mall.
Farrar was trying to make a Great Album here, a significant and meaningful album, but he didn't have it in him. He just comes right out and tells us what he wants to say instead of backing off and illustrating it with examples (compare his clouds of smoke to the flood of sharp images in "Misunderstood" on Being There). The band, now, they could have been something special, if they hadn't been backing a second-rater. But they were.
The only good couplet on the whole record is in "Tear Stained Eye":
"St. Genevieve can hold back the water
But saints don't bother with a tear-stained eye."
That's also the only memorable hook on the whole record. There's another one that's a cliche, but he makes it work: "Somewhere along the way, the clock runs out." He spoils that one a moment later with some choice horseshit: "You may be lost, you'll find/just another paradigm."
What's really right about this record is that while Farrar can't write or play rock and roll worth spit, those forgettable countryish songs are damned pleasant to listen to. Take them for what they are: Mood music. As far as that goes, they do the job. Forget the stupid lyrics. The band finds a nice groove in there, built around a tempo derived from windshield wipers, turn signals, and rain. That groove is not a shuffle, but it's a fair substitute, an honest take on the feel or sensibility that country music, at its best, is usually about. Every record collection needs a little filler, doesn't it? Next time you've got to drive somewhere far on a rainy day, take this along, and Being There too. Skip over both of their half-assed fake rock and roll songs, except maybe "Dreamer in My Dreams" on Being There. The rest of it, it's not bad stuff. You can forget that both bands had nowhere to go but down and that Tweedy's such a creep he can't keep a stable lineup for more than one album. Just get in touch with St. Genevieve, keep your hands on the wheel, and you'll be okay.
Trace was released in 1995. These are the songs on it:
- Live Free
- Tear Stained Eye
- Ten Second News
- Loose String
- Out of the Picture
- Catching On
- Too Early
- Mystifies Me (Ron Wood cover; not a bad song, but when a RON WOOD cover is one of the better songs on your album, you're in deep trouble).