Jay Farrar - Sebastopol

Jay Farrar

Released 2001 on Artemis
Reviewed by Dave Furgess, 16/01/2007ce

A couple of years back the UK magazine Mojo ran a piece on the USA music genre loosely known as "Americana." It was basically a buying guide which highlighted what the writer reckoned were the best albums of this genre. It featured what she called 10 or so essential albums by the likes of The Jayhawks, Ryan Adams etc. What really made my eyes bug out was this writer singled out an album that should be avoided at all costs. The album in question was none other than this brilliant album by Jay Farrar "Sebastopol." I couldn't believe my eyes, I was sort of wondering if this writer was totally out to lunch or not, but what can you do? As Felix Unger once said "one man's chicken is another man's gumbo."

My assertion is that "Sebastopol" is not only a fantastic album but it is the finest and most progressive work of Farrar's mighty career. The album opens with the wonderful "Feel Free", it begins with a carnival organ riff that shifts effortlessly into a wonderful open road tale that hits the nail right on the head, this song contains a superb ego-less guitar solo that brings to mind both Jorma Kaukonen's solo on the Jefferson Airplane's "It's No Secret" 45 and the solo on the Lovin' Spoonful's "Do You Believe In Magic", "Feel Free" would have been a great choice for a single.

"Clear Day Thunder" is a storming, full force number that sounds like a locomotive moving it's way through a mountain tunnel, great slide guitar work enhances the piece immensely. "Voodoo Candle" was actually lifted as a 45, which has a great song by Farrar pals Varnaline on the flip. "Voodoo Candle" is a wonderful song, it's a real step ahead for Farrar musically featuring swirling keyboards, great lyrics and Flaming Lips drummer Steven Drodze punchy percussion (he playing reminds me of B.J. Wilson of Procol Harum.)

Oddly enough the next 2 tracks are the only things on the album that don't quite work for me. "Barstow" is a slow hayseed country number that isn't bad but not up to the standard of the album's more progressive material. "Damn Shame" is a bluesy rocking number which strikes this listener as a B-side, it's really not that memorable (though Farrar obviously thinks different as the song is a staple of his live set.)
Those tracks out of the way, the rest of the album is brilliant and picks up where Son Volt's criminally ignored 3rd album "Wide Swing Tremelo" left off. "Damaged Son" is a moving ballad with a keyboard pattern that brings to my mind the string section of The Rolling Stones' magnificent "Moonlight Mile."

The next track is a brief instrumental called "Prelude:Make It Alright", the piece is spectacular, it's a loose funky, space jam that sounds like something from Hawkwind's "In Search Of Space" album, how I wish Jay stretched this thing out a bit longer. Yet I really have no complaints because it shifts perfectly into another hypnotic acoustic, bum trip ballad called "Dead Promises."On "Feed Kill Chain" Farrar employs the same vibe as is used on "Voodoo Candle", and the in your face drumming and percussion, sparkling keyboards and great melody make this song something really special.

"Make It Alright" follows next and picks up from where the instrumental prelude left off, but slows down into a pretty acoustic number with some lovely splashes of sitar and a mournful organ, oddly enough the overall feel of the song is actually quite optomistic. "Fortissimo Wah" is another cool instrumental with a forceful wah-wah guitar phrase that primes you for lift off. Actually the opposite happens, "Drain" the following number is a slow death ballad that recalls The Rolling Stones "Sister Morphine" with an equal measure of Big Star's "3rd/Sister Lovers" album.

"Different Eyes" is another spectacular mid-pace folk/rock tune with a gorgeous melody and a low key vocal by Farrar, his lyrics which are superb all over this record, really shine here. "Outside The Door" is a cool acoustic, country number that should please the "Americana Crowd", it would have fit nicely on Son Volt's debut album "Trace."
Believe it or not "Sebastopol" saves it's best for the final phase of the album. Beginning this phase is a seasick, psychedelic instrumental which sounds like Sandy Bull playing with a serious head injury. "Direction" is next and this one shines like a diamond, it has an almost bagpipe effect which might have beeen played on keyboards or one of the more esoteric instruments listed in the credits. It's short and sweet and it's one of Farrar's best ever songs.

The record winds down with an exceptional, eastern flavored piece called "Vitamins" that seems to borrow it's melody from an old Kinks number called "Fancy" combined again with the acoustic pieces of early Hawkwind. The track finishes in a haze of piano and sitar and brings this exceptional album to a close. In my opinion "Sebastopol" is nothing short of an artistic triumph for Jar Farrar. I think this album equals and might even surpass that of Farrar's old partner Jeff Tweedy/Wilco's much more celebrated "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (both records were issued around the same time.)

"Sebastopol" was followed by a companion EP "ThirdShiftGrottoSlack" that is also highly recommended, as is Farrar's second solo album "Terroir Blues" (which also displayed a keen sense of experimentation.) I happened to witness Farrar touring these records in person and he was simply amazing. He played an encore cover of The Beatles "Love You To" that brought down the heavens.

However old time Farrar fans were not buying into his new material in large numbers. This was very confusing to me as was the lukewarm reception of his solo records which in my opinion were clearly a leap ahead artisically. Farrar reformed Son Volt in 2004 and the resulting album "Okemah And The Melody Of Riot" seemed to be a conscious return to the Farrar sound of old. It was a fantastic album yet it seemed to sacrifice Farrar's new found experimental edge in favor of pleasing old fans. That being said I can't wait to hear Jay's next move, he is a songwriter who should not have to take a backseat to anyone and who is quite simply getting better all the time. "Sebastopol" for me anyway, is his high water mark, so far!

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