When country-rock pioneers Uncle Tupelo split for good following their Anodyne tour in 1994, it was less speculated than completely understood that Jay Farrar’s new ensemble Son Volt would find both quicker and greater success than that of Jeff Tweedy’s Wilco. As fate has a funny way of doing sometimes, though, Tweedy made massive and sometimes disturbing strides as a songwriter and performer, with Wilco reaching the summit of the indie rock world on the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2002. Son Volt, meanwhile, muddled their way through three well received if underperforming albums between 1995 and 1998, with a single modest hit to their name (“Drown” from 1995’s Trace). The band never officially broke up, but did go “on hiatus” while Farrar commenced his inevitable solo career.
Okemah and the Melody of Riot very serendipitously follows the May release of a Son Volt retrospective album, acting to a certain degree as a well-defined point of demarcation for the band’s second incarnation. Farrar is the only member remaining from the original Son Volt, giving him near-unilateral creative freedom if he somehow didn’t have it already. Whereas much of his solo work found him ambling around within a loose, vaguely rootsy indie framework, Okemah is the sound of a man who has purged those musical indulgences from his system, full of vim and loaded for bear. It might get caught up in lyrical frivolities that have been rendered obsolete since the last time Son Volt recorded an album, but it succeeds more often than it fails.
The “Okemah” in the album’s title refers to Okemah, Oklahoma, the birthplace of one Woody Guthrie, whom Farrar wastes little time in name-dropping in the album’s opening cut, “Bandages & Scars.” While the album’s direct, rock and roll approach bears little immediate resemblance to Guthrie’s sparse, Dust Bowl-era recordings, Farrar’s tendency towards broad, sometimes cutting social observations does aspire to Guthrie’s levels even if it never actually reaches them.
Farrar spends a fair amount of time grinding his rusty ax against that great immovable object known as the United States government, but after seven years on the sidelines and two contentious elections by the boards, you’d expect that he might have a missive or two tucked away in the coffers. It might have been a more noble artistic motion had not Farrar drawn such a high number at the Protest Song deli counter. Simply put, it ain’t as fresh a topic as it used to be. For each pertinent lyric like “Piecemeal solutions will only leave scars / Bandages for nosebleeds,” there’s a simple, unveiled screed like “His daddy has a job in Washington / Wants to raise a Harvard son / Junior liked to let his hair down / Only trouble is, word gets around…” Fortunately, it becomes easy to revel in the power chords on “Jet Pilot” even as Farrar invokes silly lines like “everyone needs a hunting pal” and the well-worn “the revolution will be televised.”
It’s a shame that Farrar gets carried away by his inner rabblerouser as much as he does, because the band and the music on Okemah are top-notch all the way through. Guitarist Brad Rice provides some stalwart, timely leads, while bassist Andrew Duplantis and drummer Dave Bryson anchor the rock-solid rhythm section. Farrar’s world-weary drawl is also in full form, making it easy to see why many saw Son Volt as Uncle Tupelo’s heir apparent in the first place. There are very few moments where Okemah is anything less than an engaging listen, whether you take to the spirit of Farrar’s words or not. The formula hasn’t changed much since he spurned the original lineup, but it’s a damn fine rock and roll record all the same.