Music

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.


Son Volt

Honky Tonk

Label: Rounder
US Release Date: 2013-03-05
UK Release Date: 2013-03-05
Amazon
iTunes

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.

7

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
8

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image