Jack Kerouac was one of those rare writers who had his finger on the pulse of an entire cultural movement as it was happening — namely, the Beat movement of the 1950s and early 1960s. But sudden fame and years as a vagabond takes its toll, as Kerouac’s 1962 novel “Big Sur” famously chronicled in its account of the author’s personal deterioration in the wake of severe alcoholism.
Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar
One Fast Move or I’m Gone
F-Stop / Atlantic
The album companion to Jim Sampas’s 2009 documentary of the same name, One Fast Move or I’m Gone pairs Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) with Jay Farrar (Son Volt) to put prose from “Big Sur” with melody. Gibbard and Farrar found a mutual admiration for Kerouac’s work when asked to record a few tracks for Sampas’s documentary, and they set out to piece together a full album after finding chemistry in the studio. In similar fashion to Wilco and Billy Bragg’s Mermaid Avenue sessions, the conjuring of dead writers for new songs proves to be a winning formula here.
The Gibbard-Farrar pairing certainly seems out of left field at first glance, as Death Cab’s typically lighter, more pop-friendly songwriting is a far cry from Farrar’s slower, more pensive roots rock. But where Farrar is often too gloomy and Gibbard too sweet, One Fast Move joins them somewhere in the middle to the benefit of each.
“These Roads Don’t Move” is a perfect combination of each songwriter’s strengths, featuring both Farrar’s knack for classic Americana and Gibbard’s brighter vocals and pop sensibility. They even play into each other’s styles — Gibbard’s “Willamine” sounds like a Farrar creation from the start. More somber and meditative than Gibbard’s usual work, the vocal melody is loaded with strange intervals and suspended notes. The result is pure Son Volt, but seen through Gibbard’s eyes.
While it’s often obvious to see who had a bigger influence in writing each song, the Gibbard-Farrar coupling is surprisingly collaborative. The true test for the success of any singer-songwriter collaboration is in found in vocal harmony, and for the songs in which both vocalists are present (“Low Life Kingdom,” “All in One” and the title track are prime examples), Farrar and Gibbard pass with flying colors. Gibbard lends a sweetness that Farrar’s voice has always lacked, and the same holds true for Farrar’s grit against Gibbard’s thinness. Together, they round out each other’s shortcomings well.
Apart from its songwriting, One Fast Move’s greatest qualities lie in its production, with acoustic guitars, pedal steels and inspired vocal melodies giving the album plenty of color. If anything, it’s the presentation of Kerouac’s prose that falls short: Kerouac’s writing has a much more frantic quality than either Farrar or Gibbard can muster on these tracks, and sadly they don’t do it justice.
More often than not, the lyrical phrasing sounds too forced: Farrar’s blue-collar baritone does little to animate Kerouac’s prose, and Gibbard’s shaky, boyish tenor sounds much too innocent to embody the same voice as Sal Paradise or Jack Duluoz. Kerouac, often sprawling and imagistic to a fault, was certainly not intended for a format as condensed as the four-minute folk song. If only trumpets — à la Kerouac’s own musical heroes — could speak!
The key to One Fast Move lies in viewing the record as not merely an homage to Kerouac, but as a project between two very talented and established songwriters. This is a Gibbard-Farrar album after all, and as the pair tours select American cities this fall in support of the album, the collaborative moniker might start to build some clout all its own.
Aside from some compositional and conceptual lapses, Gibbard and Farrar offer some terrific songs, with enough old, weird Americana to keep the Beat tradition alive. It’s just a shame the record doesn’t run off the rails a little more — Kerouac never sounded so stable.