If you were to track the careers of post-Uncle Tupelo bands Wilco and Son Volt, you’d get two very different bell curves. The Jeff Tweedy-led Wilco, naturally, came out of the blocks with a very mediocre album, A.M., but then the group began a glorious ascent that culminated in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, before sort of sliding back down into the murk of half-hearted releases. Son Volt, Jay Farrar’s band, turned out to release something quite glorious with their debut, Trace, only to just retread the formula (and tone down the volume) on their subsequent release, Straightaways. And it was pretty much all downhill from there—critically, if not commercially—culminating in a somewhat lengthy hiatus until the middle of the last decade. And Son Volt has been slowly crawling back from the brink ever since. I saw the band play a large outdoor festival in the city of which I live, Ottawa, Canada, during the summer of 2006, and I can honestly say that Son Volt still remains the loudest band I’ve ever heard play live. Folks, I’ve seen Bob Mould perform in the flesh and we all know that his shows push the decibel count to its limit, but Son Volt was just a pure sonic holocaust in comparison. The show was so extreme in volume, that I wound up having to walk to the very back of the audience across the grounds of the inner-city park where the concert was being held just to get some relief for my eardrums—I thought they were going to pop out of my head. If that event shows anything, it is that Son Volt, since getting back together, was charting a course to capture as much lost ground as they possibly could. Even if that meant cranking it up to the point where you cochlea may shatter. This was a band playing like they meant it.
Which leads us to Farrar’s latest record with Son Volt, Honky Tonk. True to its title, this is a somewhat particularly old-timey countrified record, full of squeaky fiddles and luscious lap steel. “There’s a world of wisdom inside a fiddle tune,” goes one of the songs here, “Down the Highway”, and that pretty much sums up Honky Tonk’s inner aesthetic. So, yes, the volume is actually quite muted here, making it akin on the surface to another Straightaways. But there’s more to the album than simply retracing steps of the group’s career: it goes much further than that. This record is actually a throw-back to the sound of country music that was emanating from Bakersfield, California, during much of the 1950s—there’s even a song here titled “Bakersfield”, natch—and, yet, as Farrar himself points out in the press notes: “I wanted these songs to sound more contemporary and modern. There was no strict adherence to methodology of the past. You never want to be a nostalgia act.” So Honky Tonk is an interesting listen: it is, on one hand, a recreation of a certain type of Americana that sprung out of the ether more than a half century ago, but it has also been uprooted and brought forward into the future. It’s an intriguing mix, even if the results are spread a little too evenly throughout the platter.
Honky Tonk also continues a new tradition that began on Son Volt’s last album, 2009’s American Central Dust. “I was always averse to using certain words in songs, including ‘love’ and ‘heart’,” remarks Farrar. “But I started using them on American Central Dust, and now I guess the floodgates have opened.” After a few cursory listens to Honky Tonk, it seems that though just about every other song mentions the L word, the effect does feel somewhat muted and the lyrics really take a back seat to the romanticism of the music. But the overall theme is there: “Brick Walls” boasts the lines, “Your heart is your fortress / Ramparts and shackled doors / There’s more brick walls and bridges on the way to your heart.” And you could cherry pick from some of the other material for further examples. Still, while Honky Tonk may namecheck heartache, if not yearning, more than every now and then, it’s really a sonically sappy love letter to a style of music whose expiry date arguably came and went a long time ago. Which is not a bad thing, believe me, but Honky Tonk is a bit out of step with the country crossover pop of the Taylor Swifts of the world.
Honky Tonk’s greatest strength is also somewhat of a liability: in recreating and refashioning a signature sound, much of the album sounds as a coherent whole, and perhaps too coherent. There’s not a balls-to-the-wall rocker with the guitars plugged in and the amps pushed to the max. Instead, all of the songs here are generally laid back and laconic. While there’s nary a bad song to be found, a little bit of variance might have shaken things up just a bit more. You just want the band to cut loose and get all ragged in their glory, just like they did even on the “quiet” songs when I saw them live. And, even despite this niggling criticism, Honky Tonk is a record that feels like an important impetus for Son Volt to refashion their now-subdued attack, and kick things up to that next level in the songwriting department, which may seem like a half-hearted compliment considering Farrar was one of the masterminds behind such alt-country classics like “Looking for a Way Out” and “Chickamauga”. There’s just a refreshing sense of urgency to the material on Honky Tonk, an album that freshens the Son Volt sound by looking back in the rear-view without having to resort to using cover material to bolster the running time (see Uncle Tupelo’s March 16-20, 1992). And “Down the Highway” traces that sense of exigency that this project heralds: “There will never be a time / That time is now / To reach for the promise.”
With Wilco now seemingly on the downward slide, and Honky Tonk showing just how much of a vital force Son Volt is, this might just be the perfect time for Farrar’s band to reclaim the promise of their wildly successful debut. Son Volt may never overtake Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the best post-Uncle Tupelo sweepstakes, but Honky Tonk is a record of careful strides that wears its heart deliberately on its sleeve. And that heart is distinctly rooted in a time and place that is mesmerizing in its folklore, and without slagging another fine band, that’s something Wilco has never really been able to capture. The bell curve for Son Volt has just notched another uptick.