Transmit Sound/Thirty Tigers
Electro Melodier is alt country pioneering Son Volt’s tenth studio album, a year after marking, sadly without touring, the 25th anniversary of their groundbreaking 1995 debut, Trace. Son Volt has always been defined by front man Jay Farrar’s weary, soulful, and inexplicably comforting voice as well his songwriting. To his credit, though, each Son Volt album has a slightly different sound and often some new themes. This time out, taking the title from the names of two vintage amplifiers from the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, the band and Farrar touch on universal issues of the pandemic, love, mortality, and inevitably some politics. Put some of these tunes next to those of or. It’s not as explicitly political excepting a few songs as 2019’s Union nor does it rock as consistently hard as 2017’s Notes of Blue, but the variety of sounds and themes is its redeeming feature.
The core band remained intact for this recording, but it was recently announced that longtime lead guitarist Chris Frame is leaving the band, with John Horton of The Bottle Rockets taking his place. Immensely talented keyboardist/steel guitarist Mark Spencer, animated bassist Andrew DuPlantis and steady drummer Mark Patterson provide strong backing. You’ll find some completely new sounds in the Wurlitzer- driven “Lucky Ones” and the acoustic low-tuned blues of “War on Misery,” as just two examples. It’s rare when Farrar adds another vocalist, but country singer Laura Cantrell delivers harmonies on “Diamonds and Cigarettes,” an ode to Farrar’s wife of 25 years, one of several that feature Spencer’s masterful pedal steel.
Many have already heard the single, “Reverie,” the opening album track which describes Farrar’s pensive state looking out the window during the pandemic, a mood we can all relate to. Yet Spencer’s guitar and lush Big Star melodies give the otherwise pensive tune an oomph. The first of the political songs, “The Globe” is inspired by the world-wide protests accompanying The Black Lives Matter movement, purposely injecting the Moog line from The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Farrar sings, “Share a little truth with your neighbor down the block, we’ve all got fossil fuel lungs while we run out the clock.” He returns with an acoustic reprise of the tune near the end of the album, singing “People climbing skyward stairs, Deciders of their fate, you can see it everywhere, Change is in the air….” Similarly, the urgent “Someday Is Now” channels some Led Zeppelin riffs while “These Are the Times’ echoes similar sentiments. The Barry McGuire-like “Living in the U.S.A” will inevitably be compared to Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A” or Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” because as it has those same anthemic qualities which bode well for live performance. You easily see the masses crowding the stage singing the chorus mightily.
Like “Lucky Ones,” “Sweet Refrain” has those same weary qualities of gratitude as Farrar acknowledges the spirit of Bentonia, MS by name checking Jimmy “Duck” Holmes and the Bluefront Café. The environmentally themed “Arkey Blue” calls out a honky-tonk in Bandera TX, Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar, where Hank Williams, Sr. supposedly carved his name into one of the wood tables, as he quotes Pope Francis on “turbulent rains never seen before.” Spencer’s haunting slide colors the dirge, “The Levee On Down” as Farrar decries Andrew Jackson for the massacre of the Cherokees and Jackson’s face on the $20 bill instead of Harriett Tubman. Suffice it to say, Farrar’s scope is quite wide.
“Rebetika” and “Like You” close out the album in mostly acoustic fashion, with the latter having Farrar posing questions such as “Will you see a world you recognize?” His provocative songs, the well-crafted melodies, the judicious use of instruments, and that indelible voice of Farrar’s make this one of the Son Volt’s strongest efforts. Give them credit for not getting stuck in the ‘same old, same old” rut.
- Jim Hynes
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