Trace (Deluxe Reissue)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Released to both commemorate the 20th anniversary of Son Volt’s 1995 debut and, perhaps more importantly, promote forthcoming concerts accurately billed as “Jay Farrar Performs Songs of Trace” (note the absence of the band’s name), this expanded reissue is a reminder of the original album’s considerable charms. The initial eleven tracks are enhanced with eight additional demos on the first disc with the second devoted to an hour-long show from the subsequent tour.
Picking up where Uncle Tupelo left off, frontman Jay Farrar no longer had to share the spotlight and songwriting with Tupelo co-founder Jeff Tweedy. But like many great-if-fractious musical partnerships, the yin and yang of those two talents created a country/ folk/rock hybrid that succeeded critically, if maybe not commercially. Left to his own devices, Farrar’s hangdog, moaning voice singing an excess of lyrics yielded some pretty great songs such as the opening “Windfall” and the indie rock hit “Drown.” Still, much of the material suffers from not only the sameness in Farrar’s acquired taste vocals but in the mid-tempo lope and lack of dynamics in the music. The formula generally worked for this sporadically captivating debut, however by the next album it got stale and after a third, the group disbanded. Farrar went off on a solo career, then revived the Son Volt name with different musicians in 2005.
The studio songs here, as on all the band’s discs, vary widely in quality. Some sound as droopy and snoozy as Farrar’s vocals. Others, such as the aforementioned highlights, the lovely “Tear Stained Eye” and the subtle “Too Early” float on a laconic cloud of acoustic guitars and accordion. The stripped down, occasionally solo demos are worthwhile for fans to hear how the songs evolved and sound like the rough versions they are. Disc two’s live show reprises the studio album’s ten original tunes, adding six Farrar-written Tupelo tracks and finds the band in typically workmanlike, but never more than that, form. The concert versions don’t differ much from the studio ones yet the additional energy helps the lesser material take hold. If you saw Son Volt around this time, you can attest that their live act simply wasn’t that exciting.
Farrar is an integral participant in this reissue, helping remaster the sound and providing short, interesting insights into each selection. An essay by No Depression founder Peter Blackstock (Son Volt was his magazine’s first cover) offers a brief history and gushing accolades that the music doesn’t always live up to. If you are already a fan of Trace, this makes a worthy addition to your collection. But those new to Son Volt might be better served with 2005’s A Retrospective best-of collection.