Jay Farrar's music since leaving behind Uncle Tupelo had suggested the work of a man who has little desire to be hemmed in by the sounds he created in the past (not unlike the attitude of his former musical partner, Jeff Tweedy). However, Farrar's progress from the bracing country-punk fusion of his early UT sides has been at once gradual and full of uncertain steps, as if he knew where he wanted to go but seemed a bit fuzzy about just how to get there. After putting Son Volt on the back burner, Farrar seemed to have gained a clearer perspective on his creative directions with his first solo album, Sebastopol, but paradoxically his second solo set, Terroir Blues, finds him continuing to stake out new musical and sonic territory while stripping his sound down to its framework. The album's production is at once adventurous and spare; the distorted blues structures of "Fool King's Crown," the multiple sonic layers of "Hard Is the Fall," and the abstract "Space Junk" pieces scattered throughout the sequence make it clear Farrar has taken the more adventurous textures of Sebastopol and run with them. However, at the same time Terroir Blues (named for a French word which describes the way soil and environment affects the grapes used to make wine) is the most purposefully stark album Farrar has made since Uncle Tupelo's March 16-20, 1992, with the silences carrying as much weight as the sounds. The album's musical core lies in the guitars of Farrar and Mark Spencer, and many of the album's most striking tracks feature only one or two other instruments, such as the dark cello-infused "Cahokian," and "Out on the Road," which suggests Tim Buckley's jazzier moments with the addition of Lew Winer III's flute. Terroir Blues also finds Farrar embracing the more cryptic corners of his lyrical conceits; these songs seem to have far more to do with mood than literal meanings, though the warm but often downbeat mood and the bookending versions of "No Rolling Back" (which begins with the questions "Who do you know?/Who do you trust?/Who keeps you sane?/Who cleans off the dust?") embrace personal and worldly concerns in a manner that registers emotionally even when it remains murky at face value. Terroir Blues is a significantly more ambitious and confident work from Farrar than Sebastopol, but it's also more elusive, and ultimately this is the sort of record fans will love, but the unfamiliar will have a hard time embracing.
Terroir Blues Review
by Mark Deming