While there was never much question that Jay Farrar was the guiding light behind Son Volt, he's managed to extinguish any lingering doubts about that issue with Okemah and the Melody of Riot, his first album under the Son Volt handle since 1998's Wide Swing Tremolo. While Okemah sure sounds and feels like a Son Volt album, as it happens Farrar is the only musician in the band's new lineup who had ever played with Son Volt before, which for good or ill firmly establishes him as the sole architect of the group's musical approach. While it's anyone's guess whyFarrar turned from his solo career back to the Son Volt format (especially since it's obvious Farrar is the man in charge under either circumstance), whatever the billing the results are impressive -- Okemah and the Melody of Riotis a compelling, strongly focused work that stands as Farrar's best music since Son Volt's debut album, 1994'sTrace. While Farrar's songwriting is still in his usual enigmatic mode on Okemah, there is a noticeably stronger lyrical focus here, especially on the (apparently) anti-Bush screeds "Jet Pilot" and "Ipecac" and the rabble-rousing opening cut, "Bandages & Scars"; Farrar obviously has something to say about the state of post-millennial America, and if the letter of the message is vague, the passion of his delivery speaks volumes. And while Farrar's solo albums had an unfortunate habit of meandering, Okemah thankfully sounds muscular and driven, with Farrar and Brad Rice bringing a healthy share of guitar firepower to the songs and bassist Andrew DuPlantis and drummer Dave Bryson charging the songs with lean but sinewy force. If much of Jay Farrar's music since the breakup of Uncle Tupelo sounds like the work of a man looking for a fresh direction and a true sound, Okemah and the Melody of Riot finds him with a firm grasp of his talent and a fresh reserve of conviction; it's a bracing and welcome return to form for an important artist.