I think if you went back 22 years to 1995 you’d find the running thoughts on the trajectories of Son Volt and Wilco would be significantly different than what actually ended up happening. While Wilco’s debut album A.M. was decent enough, it didn’t hold a candle to the gritty and windswept Midwest epic that was Son Volt’s Trace. That album came out of the gates like an album from a veteran crew of musicians and a weathered songwriter. Farrar seemed to have been an old man in a young man’s body, full of insight and stoicism. It felt as if we were seeing the makings of a true national music treasure.
Then Wilco released Being There and that trajectory changed.
That’s not to say it lessened the output of Son Volt. In fact Farrar and crew pretty much kept up with Tweedy and Co. on the album front, just with far less fanfare. But where Wilco felt the need to reinvent and experiment with each successive record, Farrar seemed to want to keep things familiar; keep things part rocking, part dusty Midwest boot stompin’. Straightaways, Wide Swing Tremolo, and American Central Dust all visit the familiar ghosts that apparently haunt Jay Farrar’s dreams with touches of crackling murder ballads and barnstorming rock and roll. Son Volt may have not been ones for sonic experimentation and melancholy soul searching through obscure wordplay, but they’ve always been a band you could count on to bring the rock and roll with true inspired songwriting.
Son Volt have returned with their best record in years. Notes Of Blue doesn’t wander too far away from the path often taken, but what they do with their familiar sounds is big and exciting. Jay Farrar sounds more like a young whippersnapper than an old and weathered son of a gun.
“Promise The World” sounds familiar yet new. Ghostly pedal steel accompanies Farrar’s acoustic strum as he sings “Don’t get down as the Cavalry doesn’t arrive/It’s only in Hollywood they didn’t get it right” he sings over a loose and breezy loop of yesteryear. “Back Against the Wall” pulls similar mid-tempo punches. It’s like Wildflowers-era Petty sitting in on a Jayhawks session in mid-1994. Then we get to the punchy and fun “Static”. It’s like all those comments about “alt-country” written by guys like me got stuck in Farrar’s craw and he cranked his amp to 11. Farrar pushes the song in the red with blues-tinged vocals and biting slide guitar. This is a hell of a barn burner. “Cherokee St” gets down and dirty as well, with a bluesy stomp and a tasty Delta blues flavor. “Lost Souls” blows up into a Drivin’ & Cryin’ fit of burning tube amp rage. This is a suit Farrar is well fitted for and he should wear it out on the town more often.
Elsewhere, “The Storm” has a Ry Cooder feel with its acoustic slide and Paris, Texas existential breeze. “Cairo and Southern” might be the most breathtaking piece of music Son Volt has put to tape in a very long time. There’s an atmospheric and wandering feel to it that pulls you from the moment. Part Bert Jansch and part Red Red Meat, “Cairo and Southern” feels like a centerpiece track even though it’s nearly at the end of the album. “Threads and Steel” ends the album like a cowpoke gunslinger version of “Peter Gunn Theme” or Link Wray’s “Rumble”. “There’s a man goin’ round takin’ names” Farrar sings like the spirit of Cash is rolling through him.
Notes Of Blue proves that Farrar and Son Volt stick to their guns, and even occasionally unholster those smoke wagons and fire a few round into the night. To think you’re going to get anything more than a solid Son Volt album when a new one arrives is just wasting time. Jay Farrar isn’t one for naval gazing or being the tortured artist. He’s just the same quiet dude writing dusty barn burners on the back porch or sweaty practice space that he’s always been. I’m sure he occasionally puts down the stoic stance and cracks a joke or two. I’m sure of it.
7.8 out of 10