Son Volt bring notes of blue
Back in 1995, the year Son Volt released their first album Trace, the term alternative country was just gaining traction. Now, the moniker is about as useful as a term as alternative music is when applied to a musical genre. Nevertheless, Son Volt, the brainchild of Jay Farrar, a founding member of Uncle Tupelo, helped to establish the genre as the much sought out “next big thing” (which would be supplanted by electronica just a few years later in the giant cash grab that the music industry became shortly after the organic success that was grunge). Bands like Uncle Tupelo and the Carolina’s own Jolene, along with Whiskeytown and Ryan Adams’ subsequent solo career would forever remain tied to those few years where alternative country became a “thing,” if not the “next big thing.” Nevertheless, twenty-two years later, Farrar and Son Volt are still making the same type of music that they launched a genre with. With their latest release, Notes of Blue (Transmit Sound Records), they prove that the genre, however you define it, still sounds good enough to still be that fabled next big thing.
While Son Volt has never met with huge commercial success, Farrar’s vision has transcended its beginnings, even if his sound has never significantly evolved or changed over the years. As the years have gone by though, the alternative country sound has become more aptly defined as “Americana,” a much more inclusive, accurate, and fittingly postmodern description. Alt-country/Americana bands like Son Volt are more than just an alternative to mainstream country music. Strings, pedal steel, acoustic and grungy electric guitars play off each other in Son Volt’s songs in a way that references several genres of American roots music, but eschews sounding categorically like any single one of them. Herein lies the beauty, and singular appeal, of Son Volt’s music. There’s a bit of a country twang in Farrar’s songs, thicker than than that alluded to in Pearl Jam’s “Daughter” for example, but not loud enough to be considered “country-western.” There’s some heavy grunge rock-like riffs, but nowhere near as heavy enough to be equated with a Soundgarden riff. There’s buzzsaw blues guitar riffs as well, as heard in the excellent “Sinking Down” off Notes of Blue, but these notes don’t bend quite enough to be considered to be in homage of Buddy Guy’s blues riffs, even if they bring them to mind. There’s some wonderful sounding electric guitar in the standout track “Back Against The Wall” that references Neil Young and Crazy Horse, but is much more sparsely played and contained. The same song tells a story as poignantly as Bruce Springsteen tells stories in his music, but Farrar leaves the lyrics vague enough to apply to anyone at anytime, although it feels much more in tune with or referential to the current state of anxiety rushing in waves through many communities and regions of the U.S. right now. There’s a shortness and conciseness to the songs, as well as to the album in general. It clocks in at a quick, and very punk-like, 31 minutes in length, but there’s, arguably, nary a punk riff to be heard here anywhere (although a case can be made for the main riff of “Static” displaying some punk leanings). Farrar takes his directions from a cross section of American music, travels in a few of them at the same time within the same song, and ends up somewhere you’ve never heard before, but recognize. Son Volt was, and still is, the definition of the postmodern movement in music rather than an alternative to any genre.
Making music that sounds fresh and insightful while comfortably reminding you of the warm and inviting music that came before, and getting your blood pumping at the same time. is no rare accomplishment. Jay Farrar and Son Volt have been doing this for a couple of decades now, and with Notes of Blue reaffirm that there is plenty of ground to be covered yet with their music, however you choose to define it.