Son Volt – Notes of Blue
If there is one consistency throughout Jay Farrar’s career, from Uncle Tupelo to Son Volt to New Multitudes, it’s his ability to drive a sliver of hope into the heart of despair. He sets that tone immediately on Son Volt’s latest album, Notes of Blue. Pedal steel swoops gently over a strumming guitar on “Promise the World” as Farrar sings, “Don’t get down when the cavalry doesn’t arrive/It’s only in Hollywood/They didn’t get it right/There will be damage/There will be hell to pay/Light after darkness/That is the way.” He follows that with “Back Against the Wall,” a sort of interpolation of Dylan’s “Forever Young” in spirit with a massive burst of Crazy Horse-like overdrive. The dark times are coming, he says, but so is the light, and it’s only when your back is against the wall that all is revealed. “There will be times of injustice,” sings Farrar, “Times when there’s more lost than found/Down times mixed with days of wonder/A real-life spinning Merry-Go-Round.” It’s the blueprint for making it through trouble, and there are plenty of troubles in the songs ahead – temptation of whiskey and Cherokee St. girls (or Delmar Avenue girls, for that matter), the man with the “go to hell hat,” death, and hell itself.
Farrar has said the blues was foundational for this album, although it’s never been too far under the surface with him. He’s always had a perfect voice for moaning the blues, in the way he bends a word in the middle to bury the end of a phrase or let it float. He can take your mood up or down depending on that bend. And it’s particularly flexible on this album. Farrar’s definition of the blues stretches from Skip James to Nick Drake. “Sinking Down” has the hallmark Uncle Tupelo time change, alternating between a revved-up Mississippi Fred McDowell groove and a pulse slower by half led by a chiming acoustic guitar. Farrar offers some of his most muscular guitar rock in years – bring your earplugs if you’re seeing Son Volt live on this tour. The chunky overdrive on “Lost Souls” is gorgeous, staccato blasts of chords that opens up into a fiery “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” chorus as Farrar declares, “This world won’t give us the time.” “Midnight” recalls “In the Pines” in its sense of doom, and “Threads and Steel” is slinky and sinister, describing “a man going ‘round taking names.”
“Cairo and Southern,” second from the end, is where the Drake influence pops up. The delicate steel string and background drone give it a soothing psychedelic folk feel. But it’s clearly blues in intent, when Farrar sings “Think I’ll go to Cairo/To ease the trouble on my mind,” pronouncing it “Kay-row,” which has the effect of making the narrator sound strange, out of another time or place. “The Storm” blends folk and blues in a more traditional way, just voice and fingerpicked acoustic guitar. “Spent all my money on whiskey and women,” Farrar sings, “Been in this storm too long.”
Whatever the style or approach, Farrar is ably followed by a new incarnation of the band, with multi-instrumentalist staple Mark Spencer, drummer Jacob Edwards, fiddle player Gary Hunt, and pedal steel player Jason Kardong. They can provide atmosphere for the more mellow tunes or attack like a no-nonsense rock band. And Notes of Blue gives them a workout.
Son Volt – “Back Against the Wall”
Son Volt – “Lost Souls”