Trace (Warner Bros. ’95) Rating: A
After breaking up Uncle Tupelo, former co-leader Jay Farrar watched former bandmate Jeff Tweedy emerge with Wilco and a solid but unexceptional debut album, A.M. With something to prove, Farrar one-upped Tweedy with Trace, which removed any trace of doubt that Uncle Tupelo had spawned two talented bands. As Farrar himself states, probably about his previous band’s breakup, “we’re all living proof that nothing lasts,” and the quality of this album and A.M. ensured that my mourning period for the demise of Uncle Tupelo was brief. Trace is a fairly straightforward album in his previous band's country rock style, containing an almost equal measure of hard charging rockers and slow ballads. Gorgeously sad ballads such as the soothing “Windfall” (lyric: “may the wind take your troubles away”) and the terrific “Tear Stained Eye” are the album’s poignant highlights, while gritty, catchy riff rockers such as “Route,” “Drown” (a minor hit), and “Catching On” all carry a nice kick, led by the band's layered guitar attack. Still, despite the extremely high overall quality of its songs this album could flow a bit better, as the alternating contrasts between the sad ballads and the barrel-chested rockers seem somewhat mismatched. Again, the songs are mostly great, though, and continuity comes with Farrar’s lyrics, which deal with traveling dusty, desolate Midwestern roads and the passage of time. It helps that, in addition to his beautifully smooth and sad old man voice, Farrar has put together an excellent band, including former Uncle Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn (whose departure from Uncle Tupelo had been the beginning of the end for that band, and whose understated playing here impressively contrasts with his more reckless style in Uncle Tupelo) and the talented brother tandem of bassist/backing vocalist Jim Boquist and multi-instrumentalist Dave Boquist, whose playing on guitar, fiddle, banjo, and lap steel gives this album its musical coloring. Although these songs lack variety; generally speaking, it’s either a moving, melancholic ballad or a stomping rocker (though "Live Free" and "Loose Strings," two other very good songs, fall somewhere in between), Trace continued where Jay Farrar’s stellar contributions to Anodyne had left off, resulting in a classic of its type. Inspired cover choice: Ronnie Wood’s “Mystifies Me,” another highlight and one of my favorite cover songs ever.