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Outer City Limits


Jay Farrar: Sebastopol

Artemis, 2001

Rating: 3.5



Posted: October 31, 2001

By Laurence Station

Sebastopol is a predominantly upper-middle-class, Northern California city, roughly 50 miles north of San Francisco. (Picture orchards, vineyards, and really tall Redwoods.) Sebastopol, the first proper solo release from former Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt singer/songwriter Jay Farrar, is something else altogether -- a brusque, state-of-the-world rant/commentary from a man clearly not afraid to speak his mind. (Picture an isolated farmhouse with brooding clouds overhead and a weed-choked storm cellar out back.)

With a roster of indie/alternative/roots rock worthies including Kelly Joe Phelps, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Jon Wurster (Superchunk), Steven Drozd (Flaming Lips), and Matt Pence (Centro-Matic), Sebastopol all but guarantees a musical palette different from Farrar's signature steel-string, fuzzed-out guitar sound. Farrar and cohorts fill this larger canvas with everything from keyboards to saxophones, melodicas and a bowed stand-up bass. The results are mixed; what Farrar does best -- wry observations on a world changing faster and more dramatically than any sane person could possibly keep up with -- runs contrary to what he doesn't do so well: building elaborate soundscapes.

Farrar is a gifted wordsmith, with a quavering, sandpapery growl that's utterly unique, yet wholly comfortable in tone, as evidenced on the opening track, "Feel Free". The song begins with a bizarre carnival barker riff that goes nowhere, but fortunately, once the actual tune begins we're treated to a quintessential Farrar-ism: "Breathing all the diesel fumes/Admire the concrete landscaping/And doesn't it feel free?"

"Barstow," perhaps the finest track the surly artist has ever recorded, best sums up his absurdist-cum-fatalistic vision: "Anyone caught speaking Esperanto/Is thought crazy or headed for jail," he warns. "Take no notice of the rising waters/Take no notice where rivers run dry/They'll be digging through the landfills to find evidence of our great demise." Gillian Welch's gifted vocals only add to the song's combustible impact.

"Damaged Son", "Feedkill Chain" and "Different Eyes" work equally as well -- Farrar sticks to his keen sense of melody and doesn't let the background noise overwhelm the words. What ultimately drags the record down are the instrumentals; not only do they break the prevailing sense of foreboding, they simply do not measure up to the tracks where Farrar rages against the dying of a world that was gone long before he was even born.

Sebastopol conjures an image of a man, hunkered down in a bunker deep beneath the earth, barking out his arguments against civilization over a cobbled-together ham radio. The strength of Farrar's work springs from that image: He's an angry dude, with a wicked sense of humor coiled in bands of irony so thick Thor's hammer couldn't shatter them. Unfortunately, Sebastopol ultimately proves too inconsistent to sustain the weight of its creator's undeniably intriguing ideas. Undoubtedly he'll soldier on, however, maintaining his unflagging sense of dedication on subsequent efforts.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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