01. No Rolling Back
02. Space Junk I
03. Hard is the Fall
04. Fool King's Crown
05. Space Junk II
06. Hanging On to You
08. Heart On the Ground
09. Out On the Road
10. All of Your Might
11. Space Junk III
13. Walk You Down
14. Space Junk IV
15. Dent County
16. Fish Fingers Norway
17. Space Junk V
18. Hanging On to You II
19. Hard Is the Fall II
21. Heart On the Ground II
22. No Rolling Back II
23. Space Junk VI
A Jajouka/Broomfactory Production
Mixed by John Agnello at Headgear Studio
Engineered by Mike Martin
"Walk You Down" and "Fish Fingers Norway" recorded and
mixed by John Agnello. Assisted by Scott Norton. Mastered by Greg Calbi at
More than any other musician of his generation, Jay Farrar has demonstrated
an inimitable skill in writing songs that explore the back roads and byways
of American music - and then pushing those traditions in bold new directions.
The twenty-three tracks on Terroir Blues - Farrar's latest record on the new
Act/Resist label - cut sharply through layers of this country's roots music
and articulate his vision of an American landscape that is bleak yet beautiful.
Farrar put down his roots in the influential alternative-country
bands Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt - and the blend of rock, country and folk
that he fashioned in those bands continues to influence artists across numerous
genres to this day. On first listen, Terroir Blues' acoustic-based sound
harkens back to quieter moments that Farrar created with songs such as "Still be Around" (from
Uncle Tupelo's 1991 record Still Feel Gone) or "Windfall" (from Son
Volt's 1994 debut Trace). Yet Terroir Blues also revisits, expands and integrates
the new sounds that Farrar explored on his first two solo releases - 2002's
Sebastopol and ThirdShiftGrottoSlack - into the mix.
The album's title provides a clue to its ambitions. "Terroir" is
a French word that can be translated literally as "soil" - but the
broader connotations frustrate simple translation. Often, "terroir" is
associated with wine making, where it has come to represent a blend of soil
type, landscape, air and sun that cannot be found solely in nature or created
solely by man. By definition, "terroir" represents a delicate balance
of nature's bounty and human labor shaped over time.
Farrar's gambit of harnessing a delicate process of cultivation to the musical
sinew of the blues signal that Terroir Blues will revel in odd juxtapositions
and provocative wordplay. The title is also a nod to the historical and geographic
intersections of the city that Farrar now calls home.
St. Louis and its environs have been a crossroads for centuries - and Terroir
Blues is planted firmly in that soil. Native Americans carved a civilization
in earthen mounds near St. Louis more than a thousand years ago. French explorers,
Spanish troops and German immigrants passed through the city as well, leaving
their traces. Closer to our own time, jazz, blues and country music found their
way up and down the Mississippi River through St. Louis - making it a musical
crossroads as well.
St. Louis' role in creating and nurturing the blues is well
known, but the notion of "terroir" in the album's title is also a nod to St. Louis'
strong French influence - which can be found today in its avenues named "Gravois," its
boulevards named "Carondelet" and its streets named "Dodier."
Terroir Blues' musical avenues are numerous, and they intersect
in consistently intriguing ways. Sonic dissonance links delicate folk songs.
A dirty blues finds its way into a psychedelic ashram. Straightforward country
is juxtaposed with short snippets that Farrar dubs "Space Junk" -
in which electric saz, synthesizer and backward sounds swarm together like
bees in a struck hive.
The sounds of "Space Junk" demonstrate a continuation of Farrar's
desire to experiment and expand his music in a technological sense. "I
set out to work in that medium," says Farrar of the backwards sound effects
that pop up in the Terroir Blues mix. "I think of musical sounds played
in reverse as a legitimate musical tool and not a studio trick."
"Space Junk" and Terroir Blues' use of effects evoke the mood and
sound of The Beatles' Revolver, while the live feel of Neil Young's Tonight's
the Night is also found here -both of these records placed well-crafted songs
into stark juxtapositions and odd settings. It's a comparison that Farrar does
not reject. "I was using some albums that I like - Revolver, Tonight's
the Night - as touchstones," says Farrar.
But if Terroir Blues' sharp surfaces do bear a striking resemblance
to both touchstone records - its exquisitely wrought songs only solidify
such comparisons. The songs on Terroir Blues are rooted in a musical forthrightness
and lyrical gravity - and they rank among Farrar's best work to date. Songs
such as "All
Your Might," "Hanging on to You" and "California" sport
sharp melodies that hook fast and deep - and ripple with lines and images that
will leave listeners pondering.
Farrar notes that the cohesive and integral sound of Terroir
Blues can be laid to a consistent lineup of musicians. The difference between
Terroir Blues and Sebastopol, he observes, is that "we had more of a core group of musicians
on this record - and adopted more of a live approach." Multi-instrumentalist
and Blood Oranges stalwart Mark Spencer is Farrar's primary accomplice, playing
piano, lap steel and slide guitar on a good part of the record. Farrar and
Spencer recorded one instrumental ("Fish Fingers Norway") "live
in the studio, right as we got done mixing."
Among the other musicians in the "core" of Terroir Blues are former
Son Volt pedal steel player Eric Heywood, Superchunk's Jon Wurster on drums
and St. Louis alt-country fixture John Horton on guitar and bass. Lead Bottle
Rocket Brian Henneman plays "electric slide sitar" on the distorted
blues of "Fool King's Crown."
"It was Brian's first time fooling around with an electric sitar," Farrar
wisecracks. But "Fool King's Crown" is a good example of how much
of Terroir Blues came into being. "It's a simple song in a blues vein," Farrar
says, "and then we played around with it. Brian says it sounds like 'a
Chinese blues band on drugs'."
Terroir Blues was recorded at the tail end of 2002 and the
beginning of 2003, working from a batch of songs that Farrar had written
over a few months that summer. "I tend to write a basic song structure," says Farrar, "and
then record it, trying different approaches until you find the one that works."
Thus, the musical textures found on Terroir Blues vary widely.
Sebastopol's fans will find the exoticism of "Fool King's Crown" and the tear-blurred
layers of sound on the ruminative ballad "Hard Is The Fall" to be
near kin to Farrar's first solo record. Yet Terroir Blues is unafraid to strip
arrangements down to a stark simplicity. On "Cahokian," for instance,
Farrar's guitar and voice are underscored by Janice Reiman's brooding cello.
Lou Winer's flute playfully chases the melody of Farrar's ballad of wandering, "Out
on the Road", as it winds down its path.
As Neil Young did with the title track of Tonight's the Night,
Farrar offers listeners two takes on a few of the tunes on Terroir Blues.
The piano-based arrangement of the first version of "Hanging on to You" shades the
song more darkly than the tune's more countrified second take. An alternate
take of the album's opener, "No Rolling Back," also switches up the
feel of the song from rock to country. Second versions of "Hard Is the
Fall" and "Heart on the Ground" strip away layers of sound from
the initial takes and transform the songs into something altogether more haunted.
Lyrically, too, there is a feel of spectral restlessness on
Terroir Blues. Farrar's words wander through cities from Salem, Missouri
to Inchon, Korea, dragging chains of memory, history and loss behind them. "Your going to
find pain," sings Farrar on "Out on the Road," "when you're
out on the road." And when they do touch on the present, Farrar's lyrics
blend their hope with the bitterness of a witness to unremembered and unacknowledged
history being repeated.
Some of the haunted nature of Terroir Blues' songs is rooted
in Farrar's recollections and reflections on the life of his father, Jim "Pops" Farrar - a
wandering musician and Merchant Marine in both World War II and the Korean
War with Missouri family roots. Later on in life, "Pops" Farrar became
a living legend of sorts in St. Louis - where his crackling takes on traditional
songs, sung a capella or accompanied by harmonica and concertina were recorded
as Memory Music: Songs and Stories from the Merchant Marine.
Farrar's ruminations on his father's death last summer provided
some of the impetus for the songs on Terroir Blues. "I started working with the backward
sounds as a way to approximate sonically some of the emotions I was feeling.
It forced me to look at where my parents came from - and where I came from," says
Farrar of his father's passing. "Most of it was memories flashing back
to me at times."
One of those memories, Farrar recalls, was his father telling
him that he'd shaken the hand of Hank Williams - a reminiscence evoked in "Hard Is The
Fall" as "Shaking the hand of the rambling man from Montgomery/ a
music evangelist/ a never ending quest." On the somber piano and pedal-steel
based "Dent County," Farrar examines the distance between his father's
Merchant Marine wanderings in far-off locales such as "Inchon" and "Bremerhaven" to
the Farrar family's strong roots in the Missouri Ozarks.
Terroir Blues also touches rather explicitly on contemporary
issues through the filter of history. "I don't want to be labeled as a political writer," says
Farrar. "But there is an acknowledgment of current events that finds its
way into the writing." Songs such as "No Rolling Back" - which
touches on the "21st Century blood" already being spilled - and "Fool
King's Crown" - which fiercely mocks the vulgarity of popular sentiment
and culture - are among Farrar's most specifically political to date.
"Writing about politics does force you to take a straighter line," admits
Farrar. "I try to put it in a broader context, but sometimes I can't resist
putting those things into a song."
"Cahokian" is perhaps the most explicit in its reading of a history
doomed to repeat. The song evokes the grand Mississippian civilization that
sprang up over a thousand years ago in Illinois and Missouri and juxtaposes
it with the modern landscape that has sprung up around (or even erased) the
ancient earthen mounds that remained after the civilization died out. Are the "new
Mississippians/under a smog-choked sun/waiting to be undone" doomed to
repeat history? The song leaves the question ominously open.
"You can still see signs of that culture around St. Louis," says
Farrar. "There are even pictures of a house perched on top of one of the
mounds, and of the settlers carrying soil out from the mounds." Even today,
some of those Mississippian mounds stand unmarked next to modern structures. "I
used to wonder what folks who used to go to Grandpa's [chain store] thought
of the mound next to the parking lot," says Farrar.
At one point in "No Rolling Back," Farrar makes a plea for someone
or something to "deliver us from now." In the landscape that he's
sketched out on Terroir Blues, the past is never distant - it is imminent.
Memory is not something that can be cast aside. Rather, we breathe it in like
On Terroir Blues, Farrar scores his profound ruminations on memory, history
and loss to a vibrant music grounded in his own past accomplishments and pushing
hard toward new horizons. In a time of uncertainty, Farrar's articulate vision
of America's past and its promise - filtered through personal pain and loss
- proves compelling and uncompromising.
Act/Resist is a record label formed by Jay Farrar. The origin
of the name is the combination of "two words
that I thought I could live with," says Farrar. "It's got the feel
of socialist revolt, too."
Farrar adds that "the label came about as I saw a systematic
reality in the music business. Artists get dropped and labels go out of business
every day. I want to make sure that there is an outlet for my music."