Published Feb 14, 2017Like many of music's celebrated, prolific songwriting talents, there is a restlessness that bubbles at the centre of St. Louis alt-country musician Jay Farrar's creativity.
Not content to rest on his laurels as the primary creative force behind genre-defining Son Volt records like Trace and Straightaways, or as co-founder of the now-defunct pioneering alt-country outfit Uncle Tupelo, Farrar and his main creative vehicle (the aforementioned Son Volt_ consistently push creative boundaries by employing new instruments and fresh ideas with each new release. This was the case with 2007's The Search, on which a horn section and keyboards were prominently featured, and also with 2013's Honky Tonk, a tribute of sorts to the Bakersfield sound renowned for its pedal steel guitar and duelling fiddles.
Notes of Blue, Son Volt's eighth full-length release, is no exception to Farrar's innovative approach. As the title suggests, the album is blues-inspired, but not in the standard sense — think Mississippi Fred McDowell or Charley Patton, with amplifiers cranked to 10. The album begins on a less deafening note, however, with "Promise the World," a country/soul tune that would slot in nicely on any Son Volt album. The second track, "Back Against the Wall," is a Trace-era roots-rocker that considers the plight of the underdog, a familiar Farrar lyrical theme.
This is where the vintage Son Volt sound gives way to the distorted, chunky blues-rock riffs that dominate the album. Tracks like "Cherokee St.," "Static" and "Lost Souls" demonstrate this shift best with their loud, unrelenting assault on the ears — in a good way, of course. There are some transitory moments of respite here as well, with tracks like "Cairo and Southern" and "The Storm" giving the listener some time to breathe and reflect.
Farrar doesn't take many chances with the lyrical content. He sticks mainly to common blues themes like moonshine, failed relationships and fragile mental health. There is pushback, however, with elements of hope and resistance interspersed among the more downcast moments.
This is a pretty entertaining effort by these musical veterans, despite it sounding a bit one-dimensional at times. Farrar has the talent and ability to write any kind of song he wants to, so it's nice to see him write the album he wants to write instead of pandering to a nostalgic fan-base pining for mid-to-late '90s Son Volt.
Notes of Blue is a solid effort overall; here's to riding the wave of change and surprise as Farrar's songwriting continues to evolve. (Thirty Tigers)