Son Volt goes back to basics
by Sara Brickner
Son Volt’s sixth album and first release for Rounder Records, American Central Dust, is a testament to the endurance of a genre that’s alternately been vilified and adored over the past half century. Like vintage songstress Barbara Mandrell, Jay Farrar was country when country wasn’t cool, and it cost him the level of fame that his ex-bandmate achieved with “indie” rock outfit Wilco, a band that’s been misfiled as an alt-country band by lazy reviewers who can’t let go of Uncle Tupelo. Son Volt, on the other hand, has always been reliably twangy. But Farrar’s best when he works within the confines of classic country music, and American Central Dust is one such release — pedal steel, fiddle and organ feature prominently, as is meet for a country band, and the relative tinkering of his prior efforts (pre- and post-hiatus) is almost absent. That’s exactly why it’s so compelling: because it’s more difficult to work within those strict confines and create something fresh than it is to blur the lines.
And it’s a good time for purism. In the face of all the change we encounter as Americans — that which was promised us and that which has been thrust upon us — Farrar’s songs are comforting reminders of all the things that haven’t changed about our struggling nation. The straightforward incarnation of Americana he offers provides a welcome reminder of one of the few uniformly positive things to come from our damaged nation: its unique musical traditions. It is also a reminder of where Farrar himself has come from, as it has more in common with Son Volt’s very first album, Trace, than any of his other albums. The one significant difference is the songwriting: In the past two decades, Farrar has honed his skill as a lyricist, which is how he manages to capture the tension of a jaded nation waiting with bated breath for things to improve with sincerity, but without resorting to preachy platitudes. Meanwhile, indie rock has grown progressively more generic and uninspired. While inferior Pavement knock-offs comprised of whiny white boys in skinny designer jeans complain about trifling matters using the same four chords, country music tackles the serious stuff with sincerity and genuine musicianship — the same sincerity that apathetic, smirking indie rockers mocked all the way to the top of the charts. But right now, we need country music’s unpretentious sincerity. And whenever trends change and country fades back into the underground, it’ll remain as timeless as ever for the people who loved it long before it was cool to wear cowboy boots and rock a bushy beard.
Son Volt and Sera Cahoone. 8 pm Saturday, December 5. WOW Hall • $15.