Death Songs for the Living
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2006, Volume 13, #12
Written by John Metzger
Since the dissolution of Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar has appeared, at times, to be lost. His work, both with Son Volt and under his own name, has been uneven, and the stylistic shifts that have taken place within his music indicate that he has been searching for something more than just direction. Over the course of his last few outings — which have included a retrospective that was disguised as a concert set (Stone, Steel & Bright Lights) as well as a new album from a resurrected and reconfigured Son Volt (Okemah and the Melody of Riot) — Farrar slowly but surely has been reconnecting with his past. As it turns out, however, what he needed most was a partner who understood his penchant for turning old-time folk and blues tunes into haunting laments for the current inhabitants of middle America.
In crafting his latest endeavor Death Songs for the Living, Farrar found a kindred spirit in Varnaline’s Anders Parker. Although Farrar clearly is the guiding force behind their collaborative project Gob Iron, it’s the duo’s shared vision that transforms the album into an utterly mesmerizing rumination upon the end of life. Only two of the 10 tracks on the set are original compositions; both Nicotine Blues and Buzz & Grind were penned by Farrar. The rest of the tunes — Stephen Foster’s Hard Times, Rev. J.M. Gates’ Death’s Black Train, and Carter Stanley’s Wayside Tavern, among them — were plucked from American history and retooled with new lyrics and melodies. Though most of the arrangements are acoustic-oriented, the presence of an electric slide guitar adds a portentous air to the proceedings, while in comparison with the bulk of the affair, the down and dirty blues groove of the concluding Buzz & Grind kicks up some serious dust.
Drawing from the concepts behind Farrar’s 2003 endeavor Terroir Blues, Gob Iron utilized a series of instrumental sketches to link together the material on Death Songs for the Living, and while this strategy caused the previous outing to feel disjointed, it lends the new album a cohesive air. In a funereal fashion, each interlude helps to shape the effort’s overall tonality by providing a moment to ponder the emotional depths that Farrar and Parker are plumbing. Granted there’s nothing here that Farrar and his many disciples haven’t done countless times before. Nevertheless, it’s been quite some time since he has concocted a full-length studio outing that unfolds as naturally Death Songs for the Living. That alone is worth savoring. ½
Of Further Interest...
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box