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Artist: Jay Farrar
Label: Artemis Records
Length: 17 tracks

Jay Farrar may well have the best voice in both rock and country music, a twangy, whiny drawl that goes out of key and hits all the wrong notes in all the right places. It’s so good, in fact, that I’m willing to overlook the fact that he’s been writing the same damn song since his Uncle Tupelo days. That same damn song appears seventeen times on his debut solo record, Sebastopol, disguised as rockers and ballads, and masked and accentuated in sampled strings and horns. 

No, Farrar never breaks out of the room he’s been inhabiting since the early 90s, but he does bang on the walls a little—"Vitamins" is pleasantly droning, and "Make it Alright" is the closest thing he might ever have to a radio-friendly pop single. He also injects a bit of rare humor into the album, by means of "Barstow." "The devil bought the key to Branson," he smirks, "drives a backhoe and wears a gold chain." And he’s right—Sebastopol, sitars, mellotrons and all, is purer country than the next Factory Belt product Garth and Reba churn out. 

Album-opener "Feel Free" finds Farrar on the road again, in the spirit of Son Volt’s "Windfall": "Breathe in all the diesel fumes / Admire all the concrete landscaping / Doesn’t it feel free?" At this point, the man has sung about life on the dirty road so much that said diesel fumes and concrete landscaping inhabit his voice. When he says that that the "world is gonna burn up / four billion years from now / if it doesn’t happen anytime soon," his inflection tells us that he won’t mind, providing he can still hit Interstate 55 and get his daily fix of caffeine and nicotine.

Farrar’s spectacular voice saves a couple of songs from ruin—for example, "Damn Shame" starts off with a splendid Stones-y guitar riff, but is let down by the melody and lyric, and if anyone else were singing it, it’d be lost. Likewise, "Damaged Son" is carried by its chorus, but even Farrar almost loses his audience on the verses. On the other hand, there’s "Clear Day Thunder," which explodes into distortion and feedback at several points; Farrar’s voice is hidden behind shards of glass, but it works, and it works well. 

The alt. country scene may be waning in popularity (especially with Farrar’s day-job Son Volt "on hiatus" right now), but Sebastopol makes a splendid addition to—and transcendence of—the scene. Tupelo and Son Volt fans are advised to pick it up, as are those who have been meaning to check out those bands but never got around to it.

Michial Farmer (10/14/01) 



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