Road imagery dominates so much of Jay Farrar’s post-Uncle Tupelo debut that it’s tempting to dismiss the record as just another paean to wanderlust and white line fever. But Farrar’s restlessness is too full of longing and self-awareness to be considered one-dimensional. As lines like “Mileage takes its toll” and “We’re just living this way because we know no other” suggest, he knows that moving can easily become addictive, driving us from the ones we love. At a more basic leveland as the realization “It’s now or never, too close to the latter/We’re all living proof that nothing lasts” makes plain is about the struggle to create, or at least find, meaning amid the transience of life itself.
Except for two or three lumbering riff-rockers, Farrar’s plainspoken ruminations are well served by Son Volt’s gently rocking grunge-folk. Banjo, fiddle, and lap and pedal steel guitar give the record a warm, dusky feel, but it’s the insistent kick of Mike Heidorn’s drum kit that keeps the music from becoming overly stylized. While there are lyrical traces of Uncle Tupelo’s overhyped breakup for those who listen for such things, Son Volt’s debut proves that the split was good for Farrar, freeing him to pursue his more traditional, but uniquely personal, vision.
Even more than resemblances to the music of Vic Chesnutt and Guided By Voices, Sparklehorse’s extraordinary debut sounds like a muted, Southern follow-up to the Soft Boys’ underground pop classic Underwater Moonlight. Sparklehorse prime mover Mark Linkous shares much of former Soft Boy Robyn Hitchcock’s whimsical sensibility, right down to his penchant for abstract imagery (“You are a car, you are a hospital”), twisted eroticism (“snakes eating their own tails”) and eerie disclosures (“The owls have been talking to me/But I’m sworn to secrecy”). Dark emotions abound, whether on surging anthems like “Tears on Fresh Fruit” and “Hammering the Cramps” or crepuscular love songs like “Heart of Darkness” and “Most Beautiful Widow in Town.” The influence of -era John Lennon is also evident; Lennon may even be the fertility god whose coming is foretold in the shimmering “Rainmaker.” As in the music of the Soft Boysbefore Hitchcock’s eccentricities became mannerisms and before guitarist Kimberley Rew left the bandLinkous’ guitar puts his songs across even when his lyrics are at their most inscrutable. is a bona fide wonderone of the strangest, most beautiful and moving records to be released this year.
With a new album just about every year, as well as side projects, soundtracks, reissues and the spate of imitators they’ve spawned and sponsored, Sonic Youth have contributed to the maddening phenomenon of culture overproduction if anyone has. Nonethelesthe New York four-piece has created some of the most urgent, original noise this side of the Velvet Underground. is no exception. The record is loaded with the embedded yet undeniable hooks that have become the band’s calling card: From the girl-group homage to flourishes of psychedelia, Sonic Youth’s latest finds them at their most provocative and inspired. Even the 19-minute closing track is a minor revelation. Most importantly, the guitars of Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore still make a glorious din.
Jesus Wept (Gee Street/Island)
Prince Be of P.M. Dawn has made two of the most lushly magnificent records of the 1990s. More than just the Brian Wilson of hip-hop, he is also one of the genre’s preeminent mystics, possessing an ecumenism that’s big enough to embrace worldliness, nature and the flesh. This generosity isn’t as apparent on Jesus Wept. Despite the record’s gorgeous, multilayered musical settings, songs like “Forever Damaged (the 96th),” “My Own Personal Gravity” and “Miles From Anything” abandon all hope of making meaningful connections in this world; the line “No one wants to be down here/But everyone was dumb enough to come” sounds positively escapist.
Pessimism in pop music is nothing new, but while Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Tricky’s are filled with rancor and bad vibes, they don’t aspire to transcendence the way that P.M. Dawn does. If Prince Be wants to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, that’s fine, but Jesus wept because he identified and suffered with people living on the marginsnot because he’d given up on the world. Jesus Wept’s message wouldn’t ring so hollow if it were an expression of genuine engagement with the world instead of simply an expression. I don’t doubt that Be believes all life is sacred; it’s just that the only place you hear it this time out is in the sumptuous grooves of his music.
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