The rise of alt-country music in the early '90s was inextricably linked to the legendary band Uncle Tupelo, which before its demise gave birth to a lineage complicated enough to warrant a Ken Burns documentary. One of the better bands Tupelo inspired was Whiskeytown, whose lead singer Ryan Adams struck off on his own earlier this year with his solo debut, Heartbreaker. While that record was composed of hushed, stripped-down ballads, Adams's latest offering, Gold, couldn't be more different in tone and style. Rooted in blues and classic rock, Adams channels his radio forebears into tracks such as the exuberant "Firecracker," the twangy "Rosalie Come and Go," and the old-timey bluegrass of "Sweet Black Magic." Adams has never been shy about telegraphing his influences, as the cuts "Answering Bell" (Van Morrison) and "Somehow, Someday" (The Byrds) attest. And he still has an indulgent streak that permits the occasional embarrassment ("Sylvia Plath"). But taken as a whole, Gold is bursting with so much passion and raw energy (as is Adams's current live show) that it's clear that the singer-songwriter has surpassed many who preceded him.
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It's too early to tell whether the same can be said of Jay Farrar. One of Tupelo's two singers (the other, Jeff Tweedy, leads Wilco), Farrar went on to found Son Volt before he, too, went solo. Farrar's debut, Sebastopol, is marked by his somnolent voice and bleak characterizations of Midwestern aimlessness. "Feel Free" and "Voodoo Candle" would each qualify as Son Volt standard-bearers, while "Dead Promises" and "Damaged Son" are trademark meditations on loss and alienation. The most notable departure is the inclusion of synth and sitar, which feels oddly appropriate on "Make It Alright" but foreign throughout the rest of the album. Too much of Sebastopol is given over to Farrar's dreary wallowing, made more difficult by his opaque, mumbled lyrics. There are flashes of genius that recall Son Volt's 1995 classic, Trace, but only enough to make one long for a fuller return to form.