Mark Von Schlegell

Jay Farrar: “Thirdshiftgrottoslack,” Artemis Records


Jay Farrar, "Sebastopol", CD cover

Jay Farrar and his band Son Volt were kicked out of Warner Brothers Records in 1999. Instead of returning to corporate mega-labels and their mini-me pseudo-independents, Farrar disbanded Son Volt and, urged by Steve Earle, signed with independent Artemis Records to a guarantee of total artistic freedom. He went into his home-made St Louis studio in 2000 and put together a suite of songs-an abstract arc from Saarinen's St Louis to George Harrison's India-as localized and personal in subject as geopolitical in scope. The full length “Sebastopol” was released in 2000 and Artemis has now released the remaining material (including a Tom Rothrock re-mix of “Damn Shame”) in a new EP: “ThirdShiftGrottoSlack.” America's finest living folk singer has discovered the globalist context of the MidWestern decline, and the results are well worth a listen.

The EP leans forward, away from the mythic Americana past that drove the early work (with Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt ), and still lingers on “Sebastopol”-into what was at the time of recording (2000), a still speculative future, but is now a familiar, apocalyptic reality. The first track “Greenwich Time”-a stripped down demo recording, relating the singer's awakening into “the West, Greenwich Time”-re-pictures Farrar's West as a geopolitical information glut into which the folk singer awakes “screaming”.

Track 2, the Tom Rothrock re-mix of “Sebastopol's” “Damn Shame,” is intended to bring the legendarily dour Jay into a youth dance culture. Such marketing attempts might be fruitless for Farrar, who-between Wilco supporters, anxiety-ridden '60s critics and his own paralyzing shyness-faces what amounts to a near conspiracy of non-publicity. Rothrock (who's quietly produced a number of other gems, Beck's “Loser” among them) works with a gentle hand, as if not quite sure how to read Farrar's multi-layered sounds and rythmic experimentation. But stark prophecies “Fool's paradise, meet the forgotten nightmare,” gain lightness from Farrar's backwoods-Biggie Smalls. “Oh Yeah's”-and the song's unapologetic politics ring with humor, somehow churned out of a neo-Marxist country rap.
The triplet of numbers that follow, stark in their political realism, but sweetly naïve in their Pop sensibility, are what make the EP one of the most interesting releases of the year. Pop references to R E M, David Bowie, Shakespeare's Bottom, and Stan Lee encounter a Bowie-esque dystopia where a “man chops off his own arm and places it in the refrigerator” because he “likes it that way” and the singer “serenades” his love, “spitting and stumbling.” The band that neatly follows the unexpected turns of Farrar's most yearning vocals (players gleaned from the Flaming Lips, Superchunk, and the Bottle Rockets) has country-rock roots, but keyboards and Farrar's lush guitar effects leave the old highs gleaming strangely new. Steve Drozd adds a piano to “Different Kind of Madness” so perfectly and sweetly honky-tonk, that it lifts the song's comic darkness into the pure oddity of present tense articulation. Underneath, Jon Wurster's impossible drums beat out intricate time with a kind of rage.
While our new “resurgence of bands” play-act at Rock n Roll by relying on past models (the Velvet Underground, the Faces, Radiohead, Dylan) with little of the passion of the influences, and zero of the politics, and while the Farrar-spawned “alt-country” begins to taste some of the glare of Nashville, and Wilco becomes the great white hope of the underground “scene”, Jay Farrar is going about his business under a cloak of virtual anonymity. Popping up these days in bypassed corners of the Empire (Italy, Spain, and the American South), accompanied by the lone licks of one of our greatest living electric guitarists, Mark Spencer of the Blood Oranges, we find Farrar outlining alternate Pop histories, re-vivifying the local American imagination, and exploring the used-bookstore infinities of his song-writing mind in small, local clubs. The politics that inhere to the new songs were written as speculative prophecy, but appear now as stark realism-a realism, oddly enough, that might not have been possible if written after 9/11. They're some of the saddest happy songs you'll ever hear. Refusing to market protest for radio-play, or indeed compromise music for politics itself, they generate a present-tense anxiety as difficult to grasp as easy (for $5 or $6) as it is to buy.
Hardt & Negri argue in Empire that the monowash of power in today's pseudo-globalist networks of information leaves wide-open ground for immediate “vertical” rebellions. Farrar shows us that musicians can make their own worlds to support themselves (do instrumental advertising work, if necessary), and guide their media-image toward the real, amateur-documented world. A presence of an absence is achieved, not only with interesting media effects, but also of great benefit to the audience. Maybe we can see a show in a tiny club in Mississippi and, out of the blue, be astonished to see a singer “blow the roof off of the place” (a local critic's take on the effect of a recent Farrar show in Manchester, England). Maybe we can pick up a difficult $5 item at an outlet and drive off to engage a living world-out of the picture indeed.

Mark von Schlegell
Los Angeles, California

Jay Farrar, CD cover