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Jay Farrar And Benjamin Gibbard:: One Fast Move Or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur (Album Review)

While Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar have had their share of differences since the acrimonious breakup of Uncle Tupelo, at least they now have one rather remarkable thing in common — they’ve both had the opportunity to collaborate with a noted American writer who happened to be dead. In 1998, Tweedy’s group Wilco joined forces with Billy Bragg on the album Mermaid Avenue, in which they set a handful of newly discovered poems by Woody Guthrie to music, and now Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie have released One Fast Move or I’m Gone, a collection of songs created for a documentary film about the fabled Beat-era writer Jack Kerouac and the troubling circumstances that inspired his 1962 novel Big Sur. For One Fast Move or I’m Gone, Farrar has taken passages from Kerouac’s book and, with a bit of editing and paraphrasing, set them to original melodies, with Farrar and Gibbard trading off on the lead vocals. Though only a few of the songs actually appear in the movie, Farrar has included 12 tunes on the album, and while they don’t quite tell the whole tale of alcoholic excess and spiritual despair Kerouac set down in Big Sur, the songs honor the spirit of the author, if not quite the letter of his original source. Musically, this material follows the same moody, lonesome, and expansive sound that’s been Farrar’s melodic trademark in his work with Son Volt and on his solo recordings, and if it hardly matches the swinging bebop jazz usually associated with the Beats (one lyric cites digging Stan Getz on the hi-fi), the bluesy undertow of this music is a good match for Kerouac’s long, unblinking look into the emotional void. But while Farrar’s voice is keyed well to the melodies, Gibbard’s lighter and more playful tone captures the restless meter of Kerouac’s writings much more comfortably than Farrar, who somehow manages to make the words of one of the most distinct literary voices of the 20th century sound like outtakes from Wide Swing Tremolo — not bad, mind you, but not all that different from his usual work. One Fast Move or I’m Gone might have evoked Jack Kerouac more vividly with other vocalists besides Farrar, but as a composer and producer, he’s done right by his lyricist, and the results are modest but rewarding.