Jay Farrar had a fair run with the original lineup of Son Volt, which emerged from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo as one of the first commercially viable alt-country bands. Then the band's sound became creatively stifling, so Farrar dismissed his sidemen and went solo for a couple of adventurous but only intermittently successful records. Now he's revived the name Son Volt for the record Okemah And The Melody Of Riot, which adds a new set of players and some subtle stylistic advances. Farrar has always been inclined to shake up his twangy roots-rock with odd time signatures and song structures. On Okemah, he starts with a basic framework of riff-verse-chorus-solo-repeat, then diddles a little—as on "Afterglow 61" and "Jet Pilot," where the packed-in lyrics spill over the measure and off the beat. Their feeling of urgency has been missing from Farrar's work over the past couple of years: the sense that these songs mean so much that he had to get them out quick, without a lot of fuss.
But Okemah is even more welcome for its entertainment value. A voice as distinctive as Farrar's deep whine can (and has) become dreary and exhausting over an entire album, especially given his essential humorlessness. Okemah is far from a barrel of laughs—sober political songs like "Endless War" and "Bandages & Scars" meditate on how the working class gets converted into cannon fodder—but the tempos are swifter and the guitar-playing springier, thanks in large part to new sideman Brad Rice. Even near-ballads like "Ipecac" and the aptly named "Atmosphere" have a rough passion. This record is quintessential Son Volt right from the opener "Bandages & Scars," which references "the words of Woody Guthrie hanging in my head" over an assortment of stunted-but-powerful riffs. Those riffs that had been increasingly lacking in Farrar's music, but here, even when his overintellectualized lyrics smear into a palette of industrial gray, the guitars provide a strong human heartbeat.