Okemah And The Melody of Riot
or Son Volt purists (if there’s such a thing at this stage of the game) Okemah And The Melody of Riot is most likely a mixed blessing. Despite Jay Farrar’s best intentions (or perhaps because of them) the band that plays on Son Volt’s first record since 1998’s Wide String Tremolo is not the Son Volt that cranked out the near perfect Trace in 1995. Due to legal issues, which in turn are inevitably fueled by life issues that include everything from kids to mortgages, the original Son Volt line up that included Mike Heidorn and Jim and Dave Boquist do not join Farrar on this outing. It may be a minor issue for fans that have waited patiently for Farrar to return to the Americana rock that made Trace an indispensable part of any record collection, but it’s an important distinction. To believe that Son Volt’s catalog is merely a backward extension of Farrar’s solo career is to sorely underestimate the essentialness of the three other musicians who made up Son Volt. So how do we think about Okemah And The Melody of Riot? A Farrar solo record? A Son Volt album to be considered with the rest of the band’s catalog? Such questions would seem more relevant if this record was a failure. It’s always easier to find error and assign blame. Ultimately, those questions don’t matter because Okemah And The Melody of Riot sits near the top of Farrar’s post Uncle Tupelo career.
I’m sure it’s to Farrar’s chagrin that everything he does is eventually compared to Trace. To produce sublime, transcendent material is every musician’s aim, but few can predict the albatross that music can become. In stepping away from Son Volt Farrar may well have been stepping away from a legacy that had become an unbearable burden. It may even explain to a small degree Farrar’s more experimental solo work. But trying to create some kind of separation between Trace and everything else he has done, whether in the context of a band or not, must surely have been as challenging as trying to live up to it. Okemah And The Melody of Riot doesn’t match Trace, but it does make you wonder what might have been had Farrar kept on with the band. At its very best Okemah And The Melody of Riot calls into question every post Uncle Tupelo statement that put Son Volt in the shadow of Wilco. At its worst it’s pedestrian. Fortunately there are more highs than lows.
While it was Wilco, along with Billy Bragg, that first laid claim to Woody Guthrie’s populist politics of rebellion on the Mermaid Avenue records, it’s become increasingly clear that Farrar is the one that has come to inhabit a decidedly everyman political sphere within his own music. Okemah And The Melody of Riot is a political record and there’s little ambiguity about it. Farrar skewers President Bush (“Jet Pilot”), goes after the economic disparity in the United States (“Ipecac”), the war in Iraq (“Endless War”), day-to-day escapism (“Medication”), and the necessity of a coming working class rebellion (“6 String Belief”). Farrar’s politics would please Guthrie enormously. We haven’t heard such bold tones from Farrar since he skewered the status quo on Wide String Tremolo. Indeed by citing Okemah (Guthrie’s hometown) Farrar is wearing his populist politics on his sleeve.
As Guthrie knew though, even the most potent political lyric gets lost without a keen melody. On Okemah And The Melody of Riot Farrar has largely ditched the country leanings of the first three Son Volt records. While there are still some traces of Americana seeping into some of the songs, particularly the pedal steel and slide on “World Waits For You,” this record is carved from bluesy guitar riffs. There’s little acoustic presence here and little of the delicacy of songs like Trace’s “Ten Second News” or “Out Of The Picture.”
This unabashedly rock centric approach to Okemah And The Melody of Riot is a flat out hoot. It begs a table of empty beer cans, good friends and the volume knob pinned to eleven. “6 String Belief” holds a wish for grass roots rebellion, but it’s the pounding riffs, and psychedelic tinged guitar solo that will turn your head towards the speakers. “Jet Pilot,” a scathing look at George W. Bush, opens on a reverb drenched riff before opening up into a fat almost Zeppelinesque barrage. The sound serves Farrar well and is a welcome antidote to his more self-consciously experimental solo ventures. He seems freed from something restrictive. Perhaps now operating under the Son Volt banner gives him the freedom to let down his hair and rock the house a bit. If the sound that the original Son Volt line-up cultivated began to feel oppressing for Farrar, it’s clear on Okemah And The Melody of Riot that a return in part to that sound has been good for his musical soul.
Reviewed by: Peter Funk
Reviewed on: 2005-07-21