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Americana is a pretty small word, really, applicable more to old, quaint things that hang on the wall than the bigger bits of culture that count in ways large and small. It’s also a fitting one for Jay Farrar, ex-partner of Jeff Tweedy in Uncle Tupelo, who on two albums with his current band Son Volt, fetishizes everything from AM radio to interstates—especially interstates. Farrar might as well be rhyming his songs from a cliché dictionary; the only verbal deftness he displays on the group’s new Straightaways is in the way he strings two or even three significance-dripping words or phrases together. Like “half-empty bottle of beer,” or “last-minute shakedown.” Memphis, New Orleans, broken arrows, broken glass—he’s got ’em all.

It’s been an amazingly quick slide for Farrar, given the solidity of the images he wielded on Tupelo’s final album, 1993’s Anodyne. There, he and Tweedy conjured fear, exultation—everything that’s been drained right out of Straightaways and Son Volt’s earlier Trace. Farrar is now apparently incapable of writing even a postcard as wry, busted, and loving as Anodyne’s “We’ve Been Had,” one of the greatest love/hate songs to rock ‘n’ roll this side of the Mekons. If you go by the 35-year-old Beatles Rule of main-writer-sings-lead, that was Tweedy’s, anyway. Oops.

Oops indeed. The most boneheaded consensus in ’90s rock criticism has been the crowning of Farrar as the king not only of Americana, the trade-magazine-named blend of country, folk, and rock that Joe Ely or Elvis Presley invented 20 or 40 years ago, but of rock itself. The Washington Post recently dubbed Trace the greatest album of the past 20 years, as if Rust Never Sleeps, Sons of Soul, or Different Class never happened. Not to mention the deceptively lighthearted A.M., Tweedy’s opening gambit with his own post-Tupelo outfit, Wilco.

Where Wilco’s follow-up was the flawed but brave Being There, Farrar and his crew have basically duplicated Trace, save for an even more studiedly grimy CD package and a rise in the number of unsprightly midtempo electric rockers. Otherwise, Straightaways just strums and moans along its aimless way for 45 minutes, Farrar taking an occasional break to honk into a harmonica between deeply sincere whines. One of the supposed virtues of the exceedingly virtuous No Depression movement, whose mopey little parade Son Volt leads, is its plain-spoken grandeur, its claimed superiority to the products of the Nashville hit machine. Plain-spoken—yeah right. On some of these songs, the singer swallows enough of his lines to leave listeners scratching their heads.

It’s just as well. (Hey, there’s one he missed.) Alice Cooper used to brag about writing an album’s lyrics in a single afternoon while watching TV; famously, Dylan sped his brains out to produce Blonde on Blonde’s studio-written songs. As for Farrar, he just dribbles a stream of dull, semiconscious-sounding moanings. He’s got one hand in his pocket, and the other hand rubbing sleep into his eyes so as not to get anyone too excited. Even Straightaways’ theme is strictly by the book: a vast, wasted landscape, but one portrayed with, what else, some leavening hope.

That approach passes annoying and becomes morally offensive on “Been Set Free,” which takes the murder ballad “Lilli Schull” (recorded by Tupelo on March 16-20, 1992) from the point of view of the victim. “My life’s been a burden. I’m goin’ home,” sings the woman killed and burned by her lover—the same weak, mystical pseudo-spiritual bullshit spewed by the kind of people who think it’s “romantic” that Jeff Buckley drowned in the Mississippi River. That Farrar’s mewling doesn’t reduce the horror of Tupelo’s version is a testament to his old outfit’s lingering power. Still, “Been Set Free” makes a rejoinder from Courtney Love on the next Hole album all but necessary.

Margo Timmins, frontperson for another notoriously vague band with a country-flecked sound, the Cowboy Junkies, lends her dusky voice to five tracks on Texas singer/songwriter Robert Earl Keen’s Picnic, his major-label debut after half a dozen indie sets. The record she assists is, while not perfect, a vast relief after suffering through Straightaways.

Keen shares some aesthetic interests with Son Volt, and his songs are peopled with as many losers, criminals, and sad, wasted cases as Warren Zevon’s or Johnny Cash’s. He gets the feel of tooling up and down the road beneath a huge sky much better than Farrar. More truthfully, too, as cars and radio usually do little to assuage the crushed hearts of his protagonists. Even when enjoying a late-night drive in “Runnin’ With the Night,” one of Keen’s characters reveals his displacement: “I’ve got a local station on, Tejano music playin’/I do my best to sing along, but I don’t know what they’re sayin’.”

While Keen has touted the lovingly produced (by March 16-20 engineer John Keane) folk-rock Picnic as his most grown-up album, he understands that that doesn’t preclude his making the cover a mordant joke about his car catching fire at the 1974 Willie Nelson Fourth of July shindig that provides the disc’s title. Nor does he completely abandon his tradition of fatalistic wild-dog tales, as the cattle-rustling, moonshine-swigging “Shades of Gray” shows. His sympathy is with these people, though, as it is with the subject of the record’s opening cut, “Undone,” who decries his own offspring as the “sonovabitch.” Such sentiments sit not at all uncomfortably with spare ballads like “I Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight” and “Oh Rosie.”

Thanks to simple admiration, a shortage of new songs, or both, Keen also adds covers of James McMurtry’s “Levelland” and the Dave Alvin/X near-standard “Fourth of July” to his own material on Picnic. In McMurtry’s song, a marching band plays “Smoke on the Water” and “Joy to the World.” Keen himself doesn’t always give his improving voice such striking images to deliver, but both the words and music of Picnic jump with a life that Straightaways’ can only moon over.CP