Death Songs for the Living

Jay Farrar, frontman for the band Son Volt, got together with a friend in 2004 named Anders Parker (himself leader of an alt-country band, Varnaline). Instead of music destined for a future Son Volt album, as was the initial plan, the pair created a stark country folk album that harks back to Farrar's earlier work with the seminal alt-country band Uncle Tupelo than anything he's done in recent years. The fruits of those sessions have now been released under the moniker Gob Iron, derived from a British slang expression for a harmonica.

Half of the album's tracks are short instrumentals improvised by the duo to buffer each of the vocal songs. Although two of the songs with vocals are originals, most of these are covers of classics or traditional tunes done by the likes of bluegrass legends the Stanley Brothers and the gospel singer Reverend J.M. Gates.

An ideal example of Gob Iron's approach can be summed up by their take on Stephen Foster's "Hard Times." A lament against woe that's a familiar standard in the Great American Songbook, Gob Iron rearranged the melody and wrote new lyrics so that it's more of a new composition than a cover of the classic.

Much of the album is arranged sparsely, but with a rich, bright acoustic sound. A few of the numbers plug in and rock, including the Farrar original that closes out the album, "Buzz & Grind."

Death Songs for the Living is anything but a cheerful album, with its songs about death, disease, and damnation, but it's a surprisingly cohesive and enjoyable album. Fans of Son Volt or especially Uncle Tupelo should absolutely take notice of this record.

Mike Sauter, WYEP Music Director