Once upon a time there was a pioneering Americana band from Belleville, Il. called Uncle Tupelo. Two of the founding members of the band were Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar. The band recorded three albums for a local indie label, and when they were signed by Sire Records, they expanded the trio (which included Mike Heidorn) to a five-piece. Sadly, the relationship between Farrar and co-songwriter Tweedy was deteriorating faster than the band’s fortunes were rising. Just before the release of Uncle Tupelo’s first major label album, Anodyne, Farrar decided he was leaving. The band broke up in 1994. Farrar formed Son Volt, and everyone else formed Wilco.
It’s inarguable that Wilco has received the lion’s share of the spotlight in the intervening years, and I’ve often wondered how that must make Jay Farrar feel. But Son Volt has made some terrific albums, and stayed out on the road through it all, except for a three-year period when Farrar pursued a solo career. There have been a lot of lineup changes, but the one constant, Farrar, soldiers on.
In recent years, Wilco and Son Volt seem to be on almost parallel paths, releasing their new albums within a couple of weeks of each other. On the surface, that would seem to be a pretty bad deal for Son Volt, as Wilco have become critic’s darlings, and popular with the public as well. The new Wilco (The Album) is one of the band’s best. So what’s an underdog band to do?
For one thing, Son Volt has eschewed the type of musical experimentation that marked their 2007 effort, The Search. If anything, American Central Dust (Rounder Records), the band’s third album in four years, hearkens back to the very first Son Volt album, 1995’s Trace, and even further back to influences such as the Flying Burrito Brothers and country-era Byrds.
Farrar wrote this album last summer when it was becoming apparent that the shit was about to hit the fan, and that many of this country’s long-held assumptions were going to crash and burn. Several of the songs are about seeking love in an increasingly desperate and deteriorating world. In the album’s first single, “Down to the Wire,” Farrar sings “Plastic grocery bags fly from the trees / Proud symbols of cavalier progress,” using powerful images to drive his message home.
Led by the piano playing of Mark Spencer, “Cocaine and Ashes” is a moving tribute to Keith Richards. It’s the first song that I’m aware of to make reference to the infamous incident in which Richards claimed to have snorted the ashes of his father, and later said he was joking. It’s an empathetic look at a rock star who does drugs because “that’s what you do.”
There’s nothing riotously rocking on American Central Dust. Most of the tempos are slow, or medium at best. The mournful sound is a perfect reflection of the times we live in. What there is, though, is a strong collection of songs, and some top-notch playing, particularly by Spencer, who also shines on pedal steel, and guitarist Chris Masterson. Both players are new to Son Volt.
What Son Volt has done is what they’ve always done. They’ve answered the call with another thoughtful, well-made album and let the chips fall where they may.