Review Summary: One of the finest representations of the alt-country genre.
Uncle Tupelo was one of the seminal groups of the emerging alt-country movement, releasing four acclaimed albums from 1990 to 1993. The band included two of the greatest musical minds in the genre, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, who shared songwriting and vocal duties in the outfit. Creative tension between the two was a critical factor in Uncle Tupelo’s dissolution in 1994, and the two men each formed their own band from the remnants: Tweedy with Wilco, and Farrar with Son Volt. Over the years, Wilco has transcended the alt-country genre to become darlings of indie music, while Son Volt has stumbled into a string of lukewarmly-received efforts. Nonetheless, initially, Farrar seemed to have been on the better end of the split.
Trace is Son Volt’s first album, released in 1995, just like Wilco’s debut A.M. In the popular mind, Son Volt won that round, with Trace outpacing its rival in terms of commercial impact, and additionally garnering much greater critical commendation. This acclaim is deserved, as twenty years on the album continues to stand out as one of the finest products of the alt-country genre. Regardless of later outcomes of the perceived Son Volt-Wilco rivalry, there can be no doubt that Farrar and company had very inspired beginnings to their band’s career.
Trace does not completely abandon the Uncle Tupelo sound, indeed, this album does not sound drastically different from Anodyne, the final release of Farrar’s former band. The differences that do exist lie primarily in Son Volt’s embrace of heavier country influences. Trace is comprised mainly of traditional country songs, molded with the alternative musical ethos. There are several songs that rock hard, but this approach is less prevalent, and the punk influences which appeared on Uncle Tupelo’s early material are largely gone.
The most distinctive parts of Son Volt’s sound are the voice and lyrical style of Jay Farrar. The man’s vocals are likely to be the most controversial element for listeners. Farrar’s voice is world-weary, and it is virtually impossible not to be depressed while listening to it. Therefore, some may well struggle to enjoy his singing. Nonetheless, most of Son Volt’s themes on this release are bleak, and thus Farrar’s vocals add another layer of power to them. Lyrically, Trace is excellent, an unsurprising result given Farrar’s strong record in this regard with Uncle Tupelo. Primarily addressing many of the negative themes of rural life (isolation, poverty, alcoholism, etc.) which populated Uncle Tupelo’s music, Farrar does so in simple but frequently brilliant language.
The songs on Trace are fairly consistently strong. Opening track “Windfall” is one of the band’s most popular works, understandably given its lyrical greatness and the power of its pleading chorus “may the wind take your troubles away”. “Tear Stained Eye” is perhaps Son Volt’s greatest song, and aptly-named, due to its crushingly-melancholy nature. “Drown” was a somewhat-unlikely radio hit, an almost grunge-like rock track. It is a good song, but does not necessarily fit well with the rest of the album. “Mystify Me” ends the album brilliantly, a more upbeat but still aching love song. The slight disconnect between “Drown” and Trace’s other songs in one of the album’s only flaws, along with several tracks, such as “Loose String” and “Catching On”, being marginally weaker in terms of quality.
Trace is truly one of the crowning achievements of the alt-country genre and an essentially timeless release. Even with Son Volt’s subsequent struggles, there is no denying the excellence of their debut. Through a general continuation of the great Uncle Tupelo’s sound and themes, Trace emerges as a soundtrack to the mistreated and forgotten backwater regions of America, narrated with sophistication.
-“Can you deny, there’s nothing greater, nothing more, than the travelling hands of time"- "Tear Stained Eye"