Jay Farrar’s got something to say, dammit: “Madmen” can be found “on both sides of the fence,” vinyl records rule, and war—uhhh, good gawd—is good for absolutely nothing. Typically the best way to leaven similarly blatant didacticism is to press “eject,” place the disc firmly in the outstretched hands of a friend or handy service industry worker, and kung fu chop! But as he has since the early 1990s, when he co-fronted Uncle Tupelo with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Farrar proves for the one zillionth time that preaching not from the pulpit but from the choir loft hastens audience acceptance.
The wiry, countrified rawk on Son Volt’s Okemah and the Melody of Riot warrants nonviolent listening. On “Jet Pilot,” the singer-songwriter parlays a rather blustery indictment of “Junior” into a rollicking grunge-y workout built entirely from two antithetical components: The satirically sweet part finds Farrar singing in his nonplussed, tenor-ish nasality along with a melancholy, introspectively fingerpicked lead line; the over-the-top response is all crashing drums, sweaty barre chords, and harnessed squall. There is also a mid-tempo, forest-green, Murmur-era R.E.M.-esque dirge, “Who,” whose chorus is a marriage of stern, plaintive vocal melody and shuffling toms.
Toward the end of the 13-track Okemah are two op-ed pieces on the deteriorating state of popular music. “6 String Belief” will have nerdy indie-rock casualties singing gaily along to “the underground will correct the reaction rebellion,” while “Gramophone” trades equally well on nifty wordplay: “hillbilly vein in 12-bar time” balanced out by “legends through sound survive.” Even though the lone track that gives the impression of non-politicized personal reflection turns out to be a book report on the pharmaceutical industry, “Medication” arrives as a hypnotic, acoustic-based, Middle Eastern—inflected meditation. In every tune, the incredulousness in Farrar’s voice makes him sound as if he’s lying to a roomful of cops. We’ll opt to believe that he’s holding something back, rather than wiping his mouth clean of his positions as he artfully declares them.