After four years doing whatever it is alternative country bands do when they’re on break (which we assume involves drinking cheap wine and playing harmonica a lot, right?) Son Volt are back. With bandleader Jay Farrar focusing on his folksier solo career of late, you have to ask what exactly spurred the successors to country legends Uncle Tupelo to return to the studio. From ‘Notes of Blue’s cynical tone laced with guarded optimism, it’s a fair bet that the social turmoil of 2016 is the band’s chief muse. Tapping into that furious dread that’s been blooming in the American consciousness, and sticking it through an outlaw country filter.
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As the title suggests, ‘Notes Of Blue’ is slow-roasted in old-time blues traditions. But it’s the cacophonous sunbaked-grunge guitars of Farrar and Chris Frame that make it stand out. At their most boisterous they’re like audio guard-dogs tugging at Farrar’s leash, the growling stars of ‘Cherokee St’ and ‘Lost Souls’. Mark Spencer’s slide guitar, best heard in the desperate ‘Back Against The Wall’, is so vicious it could be running through an amp that was knifed-slashed by Satan himself. This album may be bred on the blues, but it’s blues with one hell of a bite.
That being said, it’s when Son Volt rein those hungry guitars in that they’re at their best. These tracks hold off the accelerator, letting that beautiful distortion take on a cinematic, Spaghetti Western feel. The sparse and sinister ‘Midnight’ skulks like some desperado from a Robert Rodriguez flick, missing only the rattlesnake hisses and the clink of a bad hombre’s spurs. Less lathered in noise, they also let Farrar’s lyrics glimmer through. Always brusque and brooding as the blues should be, but with a poet’s turn of phrase and a folkster’s eye for current affairs. Closing track ‘Threads and Steel’ showcases Farrar’s skill as well as any, which such gems as ‘a go-to-hell hat’ and ‘a shark-skin suit’ in his unnamed, critical portraits. The more acoustic tracks too, like the despondent tale of the downtrodden in ‘Promise The World’ or the drunkard’s melancholy on ‘The Storm’, show Farrar’s range and scope as a lyricist. All delivered in his earnest, Neil Young-esque whine.
‘Notes of Blue’ does exactly what we’ve come to expect from one of the shining stars of the alternative country movement. Son Volt keep honest to their country roots, but have the fluidity to experiment with new styles and influences. In this case taking on a heavier, grungier edge. But it’s the desperation that runs right through the core that makes this album the superior of ‘Honky Tonk’ or ‘American Central Dust’ before it. This is a restless album for a restless world, and despite never referencing the politics or public figures directly, it feels very much a product of and comment on the times.