Thursday, December 10, 2009

"These Roads Don't Move" / Jay Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard

What's with all these "side projects"? Back in the day, you were either in a band or you weren't. Remember how Eric Clapton had to break up Cream before he could be in Blind Faith? But now you've got guys like Jack White, who can do White Stripes and the Raconteurs and who knows how many other bands all at the same time. Or those guys in Monsters of Folk, Conor Oberst and M. Ward and Jim James, all of whom belong elsewhere. Jeff Tweedy dances in and out of Wilco, Golden Smog, and Loose Fur, then records with Billy Bragg, the Minus 5, 7 Worlds Collide -- jeez, when the guy wakes up in the morning, does he even know who he's working with today?

So yeah, I was skeptical about this One Fast Move project. It began as the soundtrack for a documentary about Jack Kerouac's novel Big Sur, enlisting Jay Farrar -- the alt-country pioneer of Uncle Tupelo and then Son Volt -- and Benjamin Gibbard of the indie pop band Death Cab for Cutie (not to mention his side project Postal Service). The pairing is hardly obvious. Sure, they both exhibit a depressive streak, but with Gibbard, the depression comes out like your seventh-grade boyfriend's wistful poetry; Farrar's brand of melancholy is hard-bitten and adult, best suited to grubby barrooms and high-plains truck stops. Marry all this to lyrics taken straight from Kerouac's scouring prose -- well, watch out, sister.

But to my surprise, I loved this album. (Read here for my Blogcritics review.) Forget the film, forget even the book: This album is on my permanent playlist for its musical merits alone. Dark as some tracks may be, they're balanced by exhilarating songs like "These Roads Don't Move." Admittedly, I'm a sucker for traveling songs, especially when they're a metaphor for getting a fresh start. But I love the central image of this song -- "These roads don't move, you're the one who moves" -- an almost Zen-like koan about how travel offers a glimmering hope of change.

Throughout the album, I love how Farrar's flexible melodies accommodate the extra syllables of Kerouac's prose, imposed on bedrock rhythms that make up for the lack of rhyme scheme. Different melodies convey different moods, and Gibbard takes the lead vocal on the more tuneful, hopeful songs (which better suits his voice anyway). The passage Farrar chose for "These Roads Don't Move" is a rare island of optimism in the novel: "There is no need to say another word / It will be golden and eternal just like that / Something good will come of all things yet / Simple golden eternity blessing all." If there's irony there, it's dramatic irony; at this moment in the novel, Kerouac does believe in redemption and clean slates and all that sort of stuff. Notice how the melody soars upward at the end of lines, or nestles in a comforting little glissando phrase. And as the chorus repeats that "These roads don't move, you're the one who moves" mantra, it does so with a tuneful hook that swings you right down the road with it.

Verse two is more explicit about his journey: "Now get my ticket and say goodbye / And leave San Francisco behind / Go back home across Autumn America / And it'll all be like it was in the beginning." Verse three casts a shadow -- mentioning "dark torturous memories" and "irrational mortal loneliness" -- but by then we're just sailing along on that steady, wheeling beat, uptempo and bright. Yeah, there's the Western loneliness of a slide pedal steel guitar, but there are also shuffling drums (who knew Ben Gibbard was also a drummer?) and a brisk guitar strum to keep our narrator skipping right along.

I'm guessing this side project will be a one-time deal; Farrar and Gibbard are both too much in demand. If Kerouac hadn't brought them together, who would have imagined this? Yet Gibbard's honey and Farrar's grit add up to a beautiful and haunting album. I highly recommend.


Alex said...

What a great song -- thanks for posting it.

(And am I the only one who thinks that everything Ben Gibbard touches these days turns out amazing?)

Mister Pleasant said...

My partner is a big-time Kerouac fan, having been raised in a beatnik family back in the day. This is a really lovely song and I'm a sucker for a tasteful steel guitar. Many thanks for sharing it.

wwolfe said...

I loved the "Mermaid Avenue" album, and I think I may very well like this one a lot, too, based on this song. If nothing else, I was inspired to go to amazon and order it as a Christmas present for my friend the Kerouac fan, so Messrs. J & B are in your debt.

Holly A Hughes said...

Oh, yes, Ben Gibbard + a pedal steel = heaven for me. And Kerouac -- I always think Kerouac is going to be annoying, but then I get back to the actual prose and his genius just knocks my socks off. I suppose there are many ways in which this project could have gone sour, but thankfully it didn't.

I like having Messrs. J & B in my debt, wwolfe. I hope your friend enjoys it!

wwolfe said...

Short follow-up: My friend loved the album and DVD. In fact, he gave it a big thumbs-up at his Facebook account. Thought you might like to know.