Considering the somewhat disappointing showing in 2001 from alt-country darling Ryan Adams, Jay Farrar should have earned a lot more attention than he has for this low-profile release. Farrar, once a member of the now-defunct Uncle Tupelo (which spawned both Wilco and Farrar’s Son Volt), delivers everything that Adams used to before the latter decided he wanted to be on MTV.
Sebastopol encompasses a wide variety of moods and textures, but it still feels like a coherent effort. The album opens with the upbeat “Feel Free,” a great pop tune infused with summery organs, strummed guitars, and Farrar’s rich, rural-flavored vocals — something like a down-home Michael Stipe. “Damn Shame” is a bluesy rocker with a jangling stomp that sounds like it’s rolling straight out of the bayou.
Adding to the album’s diversity are a handful of brief instrumental interludes. “Prelude (Make It Alright)” takes an experimental, almost psychedelic approach that is somewhat jarring, sandwiched as it is between two quiet acoustic songs. Similarly, “Fortissimo Wah” serves to break up the album’s flow, and of the three interludes, only the acoustic “Equilibrium” actually works.
The album’s first half also features the more-understated “Barstow,” a straight country tune that features Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, two former Ryan Adams contributors who seem to have the Midas touch of folk music. “Damaged Son” is another pleasant acoustic song, marred by the synthesized keyboard section that pops up to ruin a few of the album’s ballads. But otherwise, Farrar turns in a solid first half of an album, rounded out by the rocking “Clear Day Thunder,” which sports a great gritty riff, and the poppy “Voodoo Candle.”
After the varied first half, Sebastopol begins to settle into a more clear pattern, with Farrar exploring his plaintive acoustic side. It’s a perfect comedown when Farrar follows “Feed Kill Chain” (which sounds like a Document-era R.E.M. outtake) with the simple acoustic ballad “Make It Alright.”
The rest of the album closes with a string of flawless folk songs. “Drain” is a beautifully melancholy track which features the enigmatic lyrics, “hope to you and all the best/ save the room for an open mind/ take it as it unravels/ no need for an alibi.” Farrar’s emotional delivery turns the song into a genuine tearjerker. “Outside the Door” is another great folksy tune, using seemingly disconnected images to paint a picture of a scene in a small rural town.
Finally, the album closes with the slow-building “Vitamins,” which alternates between crawling verses full of yearning and bursts of poppy angst (“I’m just mad at the world”) on the choruses.
Sebastopol certainly deserves a closer look for fans of alt-country, pop, or just plain good songwriting. Particularly when he’s writing his typical sad country-flavored laments, Farrar is capable of wrenching emotion and depth out of the simplest tunes. He’s not exactly taking any risks or breaking new ground here, but he does serve up a great set of easily digestible songs.
Archived article by Ed Howard