There was a time back in the day, when Uncle Tupelo, the band often credited with kick-starting the alternative country craze, would close their shows with encore covers of Neil Young rocker “Cortez the Killer” or maybe “Cinnamon Girl,” Jay Farrar playing lead guitar through his worn SG. If it was a hometown gig at the late, great Mississippi Nights, and Brian Henneman was hanging out, he’d often join them for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps,” or some other monster Southern rock jam, coaxing the serious singer/songwriter Farrar to mix in some rock star moves alongside the bouncing Jeff Tweedy on bass. Of course, UT produced three indie/rock classics before creating their major label masterwork, Anodyne, and breaking up, Tweedy taking most of the extra players and forming Wilco, Brian Henneman playing lead guitar on that first album before focusing his attention on The Bottle Rockets, and Jay Farrar starting Son Volt.
As the years have passed, we’ve been more likely to hear Farrar on an acoustic guitar playing politically-focused folk rock like a modern day Woody Guthrie, with his Son Volt bandmates in more supportive roles like we heard on 2019’s Union. As moving as those country-tinged, blues ballads might be, you’d find it a stretch to remember those days when Uncle Tupelo was still a trio and followed a country gospel traditional take on The Louvin Brothers with the punk rock of Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog” in the sweaty confines of the dark, dusty Cicero’s Basement Bar. All of this started running through my mind as I settled in with Son Volt’s 10th album, Electro Melodier, and tracks like “Arkey Blue,” which starts off with a gritty guitar riff reminiscent of something by Credence Clearwater before settling into the verse’s slower pace and has the good sense to bring back those hooky guitars toward the end. It’s followed by “The Globe,” which mixes some big crunchy electric guitar chords with an organ that hints at the classic rock moves of The Who, there’s enough of a good band vibe here, that Farrar revisits the grove toward the end of the album with “The Globe_Prelude,” this time sans keyboards.
And once you let that rockier spark catch fire in your mind, you start to notice that some of the mid-tempo numbers like the opener “Reverie,” “Someday Is Now,” and the great single “Living In the U.S.A,” have a crisper drum beat, more engaged electric guitars, suggesting a bit more attention focused on giving the tunes a full band work-out. I’m not suggesting that Farrar has turned into, I don’t know… George Thorogood, it’s just that there’s a real rock band feel here and there, and it’s worth noticing that Farrar has taken things up a notch melodically. There’s a more accessible musical quality throughout, and even on the quieter ballads, like “Sweet Refrain” and “Diamonds and Cigarettes,” there’s an artful balance between the lyrics and the song’s musicality that feels like a noteworthy improvement.
As he did on “Windfall,” the opening track of the band’s 1995 debut, Trace, he seeks to offer encouragement to those facing challenging times. Back then he sang, “May the wind take your troubles away,” and here in “Reverie,” given the greater challenges we face, “we won’t know where we stand till December,” but still offers that “You can feel the earth and touch the sky/Don’t mind the shade when there’s inner light … (so), Teach the young as keepers of the faith/To love the smell of the written page.”
While Farrar sang one honoring his hopes for his kids last time out, “Holding Your Own,” this time he offers one to his wife, describing their relationship as “survivors on the long road home,” with “All the hard lessons and no regrets,” in the country-leaning “Diamonds and Cigarettes,” joined on harmony vocals by Laura Cantrell. He continues on that theme in “Lucky Ones,” because “life is good with you around.” While the record takes a dark turn on “War On Misery,” where it appears from the sound of it that it’s nearly lost before the battle starts, but in “Someday Is Now,” he finds a punchy groove that suggests that we may actually find a way to “stop the death march/the worst we’ve ever seen.” As he has in the past, Farrar is sensitive to all the hurt in our world, like the environmental crisis at the heart of “Arkey Blue” or the Trail of Tears under Jackson, the face on our $20 bill, in “The Levee On Down.” And, I swear “Living In the U.S.A.” feels like a Mellencamp/Springsteen moment, “where the rule of law is up for sale/where wealth and privilege buy a ticket out of jail,” and Farrar asks “where’s the heart from days of old? Where’s the empathy? Where’s the soul?”, but does it in a hooky pop-song way that could land the song on the radio between “Pink Houses” and “Born In the U.S.A.” I’d call in a request for “Fortunate Son,” given the chance.
There’s plenty here that long time Farrar fans will find to be familiar – he tends to work in the school that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – but I sense a fresh spark, his voice seems more alive, a tad less weary, which makes so much of this music feel strangely more positive and uplifting than a flat reading of the lyrics might lead one to expect. Musically, Farrar and his mates in Son Volt – Mark Spencer on keys and steel guitar, Andrew DuPlantis on bass, Mark Patterson on drums, and recently replacing Chris Frame on second guitar is John Horton, formerly of The Bottle Rockets – are clicking on all cylinders, the overall feel is a step above recent efforts. In “These Are The Times,” Farrar takes on the pandemic we’re all living through, “Waitin’ for the word, for a cure in sight,” and while we may wonder if we’ll make it to the end, the tenor of the song suggests that, yes, “It’s a new world, this is the life.” In the closing track, “Like You,” he wonders if we’ll end up in a “world we recognize,” have we passed the tipping point so that we cannot find our way back, but in “The Globe,” Farrar takes hope in the “people on the street/pushing back at authority… you can see it everywhere/change is in the air.” It’s a word so good that Farrar sings it twice, and like him I want to believe that we won’t get fooled again.
Key Tracks: “Living In The U.S.A.” / “The Globe” / “Arkey Blue”
Artists With Similar Fire: Joe Henry / Alejandro Escovedo / The Jayhawks
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb