[6 July 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
After a pair of ill-received solo records, it was good news when Jay Farrar reassembled Son Volt. Of course, it took him a bit to recapture the spark. The steady bar band sound that took up much of Okemah and the Melody of Riot ended up sounding nearly as awkward as its title, as the music never quite fit with Farrar’s wanderings through his love of folk music. But the energy certainly seemed back for Farrar, and on 2007’s The Search, Son Volt was officially back. The album was lush and varied, big and heartfelt. In short, it was the album they’d been due to make for a while.
So now, half-a-year into a new presidency, and a new era—or so we’re told—in America, it seems like a perfect time for a new record from Farrar. He’s never shy, and often preachy, with the political bent of his songs, and the new Son Volt record, American Central Dust, is no exception. As always, Farrar champions blue collar America, and fights against the machinations of power on this record. But he’s also settled nicely back into his band. After the awkward return, and the smart righting of the ship, this album finds the band sailing.
And perhaps more than any statement Farrar makes, the sound of American Central Dust might be what registers as the most political move on the record. At first listen, its sawdust shuffle sounds like the band is recapturing earlier successes—in particular their stellar debut, Trace—but that isn’t quite it. It’s not exactly the pure country and sweet melodies of that album. Instead, this album strips away the strings and horns of its predecessor and tones down the sonic size of the songs, bringing their sound back to something basic and elemental. And in a time of economic upheaval and in the wake of elaborate deceptions and failures, it seems unlikely that the ever-aware Farrar isn’t making that change on purpose. It’s a change that works for the band. Throughout the album, these songs sound breathed to life instantaneously by the players, as if they rose out of that titular dust and assembled themselves, jagged-edged but fully formed.
Within that sound, there are a few standouts to be found. “Dynamite” is stunning, the sort of shuffling country-rock we’ve heard from Farrar before, but with a more subtle keen to his voice. “This love is like celebrating Fourth of July with dynamite”, he sings on the chorus, once against twisting Americana into something both dangerous and heartbreaking. The front-porch balladry of “Dust of Daylight” is another fantastic track, with the pedal steel and violins floating around Farrar’s voice as he channels the long-standing country tradition of heartbroken metaphors. “Love is a fog”, he pines, “and you stumble every step of the way”.
These tracks, along with the sun-soaked rock of “No Turning Back”, the country bar lament of “Pushed Too Far”, and the twang-rock closer “Jukebox of Steel” make for the best of this record. And while the sound that surrounds these tracks works, the songs that populate it can rarely stand on their own. Much of the rest of the record strips away the simple melodies Farrar used effectively on The Search, and that leaves his words left to stand on their own merit. Sure, vocal melodies—particularly of late—haven’t been Farrar’s strongest attribute, but in his best work he still phrases his words in compelling and affectively blunt ways. But here his phrasing is often deadpan, making the album a lyrical mixed bag.
Sometimes, the songs just don’t quite come together. The piano-driven Keith Richards tribute, “Cocaine and Ashes”, is heartfelt but too awkward for its own good. And “Sultana”, Farrar’s attempt at historical story-song, is clunky beginning to end. Most of these songs work sonically, the music comes together nicely and packs a quiet surprise or two, but that dull cadence of the vocals leaves them leaden with a ham-handed righteousness. Farrar has always proselytized on record, but it becomes cloying and clunky when the melody can’t hold it up.
He also comes across as stubbornly negative too often on the record. He either spouts vague condemnation, singing lines like “everyone knows the jury is guilty”. Or, he seems incapable of hope, as he takes aim at both fossil fuel mongers and ethanol subsidies in “When the Wheel Won’t Move”. His preaching tendency works much better when there’s at least a glimmer of hope in it—which there is on “Roll On”, for example—and avoids that in favor of contrarian grumbling an awful lot on American Central Dust. It’s a real shame too, because on this record Son Volt is absolutely making the sound they should be. There is a timely resilience to this record, and they deliver it with energy and subtle care. But a sound only goes as far as the songs that make it up. And on American Central Dust, they just don’t take that earnest country feel as far as it could go.