CD Review of Okemah and the Melody of Riot by Son Volt

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Okemah and the Melody of Riot
starstarstarstarno star Label: Sony Music
Released: 2005
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“Gettin’ that old time feelin’ again, mad men on both sides of the fence,” Jay Farrar murmurs throughout the poignant “Atmosphere”, a riveting hope-conquers-fear anthem which represents the latest chapter from his dexterous storytelling pen. Unlike tutor Bruce Springsteen, whose unashamed accounts of modern-day politics and their effect on the American landscape often serve as a media lightening rod, Farrar hovers quietly below the radar and works his grassroots campaign among a faithful horde of old Uncle Tupelo devotees. But similar to the Boss, Okemah and the Melody of Riot is drenched with themes of sin and salvation, forced hands of retribution, and dealing with the man holding you down. Fortunately for the listener, Farrar has a striking track record of delivering his musical best amidst his greatest conflicts and controversy. The Okemah period is no exception.

Having scrapped the great Uncle Tupelo over ten years ago now, Farrar has jigged from head of Son Volt to solo artist and back again with mixed results. If you were to draw a timeline of Jay Farrar’s career, in fact, the peaks would unquestionably be Son Volt and the valleys his solo years. This guy needs a band! It is the Tupelo-like moments that make this new record so damned appealing. The strident “Jet Pilot” is a feedback-heavy squealer that will take any fan back to 1992, the apex of Uncle Tupelo’s career. While the slightly toned-down “Who” brings the same ringing guitars but chooses to push the vocals front and center. “Endless War” stands as Farrar’s first obvious call-to-arms since the 9/11 tragedies, as a revolving door lineup has handcuffed Son Volt for nearly three years. Blaring guitar solos and deafening percussion, ala Tupelo classics like “Chickamauga” and “Graveyard Shift”, have Okemah and the Melody of Riot frothing with nostalgia.

When you think about guys like Sting, Don Henley, and recently Rob Thomas, who have walked away from exceptionally successful bands and lived to tell another, arguably better, tale on the other side, this progression of Jay Farrar’s begins to make sense. By the time a calming “World Waits for You” closes the album (“Find strength from the words of those that went before, Take what you need but leave even more”) it has become blindingly apparent that Farrar has hit a new stride. Uncle Tupelo is a distant memory, without so much as a hint at ever reassembling. As such, Farrar and his ’05 version of Son Volt plod on, hell bent on mapping new highways even if it means paving over old ones.

~Red Rocker