Here’s the thing about reviewing reissues: context and perspective may change, and technology will inexorably advance, but songs that were great 20 years ago will generally still be great songs now. So it is with Trace.
Son Volt’s 1995 debut remains a defining document of the ’90s alt-country movement, which singer and guitarist Jay Farrar helped spark with his previous band, Uncle Tupelo. When the group broke up in 1994, Farrar’s former bandmate Jeff Tweedy refashioned the rest of the latter-day Uncle Tupelo lineup into Wilco and presented his vision of Americana on A.M., released in March 1995. Farrar reunited with original Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn and teamed with Minneapolis brothers Jim and Dave Boquist in Son Volt to present an alternate viewpoint, and set an impressively high standard, with the release of Trace that September. The album was musically more sophisticated—the sturdy balance of quiet and loud, elegiac vocal harmonies, that dusty acoustic guitar lick on “Windfall” that opens the album—with Farrar singing like the seasoned road warrior he had become, and sounding as if he drew the lyrics from a deep well of hard-earned wisdom.
The subsequent paths of Son Volt and Wilco didn’t yield the sort of Beatles vs. Beach Boys one-upmanship that Trace and A.M. hinted at. Rather, each band followed its own muse, and Wilco became the more visible—and often more acclaimed—descendant of Uncle Tupelo. Though Farrar’s focus has changed over the years, the 20th anniversary reissue of Trace is a reminder of his formidable musical prowess and the fearsome agility of the original Son Volt lineup, which dissolved after the band’s 1998 album, Wide Swing Tremolo. In addition to remastered versions of the 11 original songs on Trace, the expanded reissue includes eight previously unreleased demos and a near-complete 18-song concert recording from a show the band played in New York early in 1996.
The demos, mostly laid down on a simple four-track cassette recorder, offer an instructive look at the evolution of the songs from their early incarnations to the polished final versions. Most of the differences are subtle: Farrar tweaked the lyrics here and there, dropped the arpeggiated intro on “Live Free” in favor of jumping straight into the meat of the song and replaced the “B-Bender” guitar he played to create a pedal steel effect on “Windfall” and “Out of the Picture” with actual pedal steel and fiddle, respectively. There’s no demo arrangement here that outshines the final version, which is how it should be: the full-band expressions of Farrar’s initial ideas allowed for subtleties in the songs that the scratchy, minimalist sketches weren’t intended to contain.
The live show is another matter. Recorded on February 12, 1992, it’s a blistering set that includes 10 of the 11 songs on Trace, along with six Uncle Tupelo songs, a tune that would appear on Son Volt’s second album, and a cover of Del Reeves’ “Looking at the World Through a Windshield.” “We had been touring pretty continuously for about six months, so in a lot of ways, we had the act down, and in some other ways, there’s some looseness to it,” Farrar told me recently for a Wall Street Journal story.
In other words, the band strikes a masterful balance on these songs between polished and raw: The guitars seethe and snarl on “Catching On,” there’s a desperate, weary edge on the Uncle Tupelo tune “Fifteen Keys” and the mix of vocal harmonies and grit-edged instruments lend an extra, understated power to “Tear Stained Eye.” The band only settles in as the set continues, thundering through “Looking for a Way Out” and an explosive version of “Chickamauga,” both Uncle Tupelo songs, before playing (on CD, at least—Farrar broke a guitar string on the last song of the show, which they left off the album) what the singer describes as “an old truck-driving song” as though they had washed down a handful of whites with a strong cup of coffee and were ready to keep rolling through the night.
It’s enough to make you wonder what other treasures lurk in the Son Volt archives. Farrar offers a hint: “There are tapes in the vault, so where there’s tapes in the vault, I guess there could be more rare stuff,” he says. For now, the Trace demos and live show are a valuable addition to the Son Volt catalog.