It’s impossible to discuss Jay Farrar and Son Volt without mentioning Jeff Tweedy. Spearheads of the so-called No Depression style of alt.country with their highly-influential group Uncle Tupelo, Farrar and Tweedy haven’t been on the best of terms since the group’s rather tumultuous split. But the split caused two distinct voices came to the fore: Tweedy’s both rootsy and experimental and Farrar’s decidedly more traditional. Because of these two opposite personae, one has risen to greater prominence while the other remains something of a cult figure.

One reason for this is that Farrar has essentially refused to alter his approach to music and songwriting since his days in Uncle Tupelo. His heavy lyrics, spare chord structures and utilitarian arrangements have remained largely unchanged while Tweedy has followed his own muse into increasingly complex and intriguing directions with Wilco. Tweedy is more of a musical polyglot and creative visionary while Farrar is far more comfortable as a songwriter’s songwriter, working his craft to a fine finish. But because of this approach, Farrar has essentially spent the last several decades making the same record time and again. While his debut under the Son Volt moniker, 1995’s Trace, is justly regarded as a classically perfect album, Farrar has often struggled to regain his footing after the monumental opening statement that followed the dissolution of Uncle Tupelo.

For those who like their artists predictable, however, Farrar and Son Volt have proven to be nothing if not accommodating. So it’s little surprise that, 22 years after his debut, Farrar and Son Volt have made another album that sounds very much like its predecessors in Notes of Blue. Admittedly, there are noted differences in Farrar and company’s approach this time around, namely a greater reliance on elements of that other pinnacle of Americana, the blues. As with previous releases, Notes of Blue is a lyrically-focused, literate work.

Opening track “Promise the World” finds Farrar’s phrasing closer to that of Richard Thompson than any classic or contemporary blues singer. Naturally, despite the title and implication that Farrar and company might be exploring new territory, “Promise the World” and nearly everything that comes after it confirms that, once you’ve found yourself a comfortable stylistic groove, it can be incredibly difficult to venture too far from it. To be sure, while this newly-assembled iteration of Son Volt is very good at what it does, it simply lacks the creative spark and fire required to bring Farrar’s talents up to the next level.

So what to make of this? Farrar has long since proven himself to be a fine songwriter and he presents further evidence throughout Notes of Blue; “Back Against the Wall” in particular offers both thoughtful lyrics and a great hook. Is his steadfast refusal to expand his approach beyond an increasingly small stylistic radius a direct response to Tweedy’s increasingly esoteric approach with Wilco? Farrar seems to demonstrate that by doing the same thing time and again he can prove to be more reliable.

Such is the case with Notes of Blue. With few exceptions – the driving, electric blues of “Static” and “Lost Souls,” for example, or the Delta blues slide guitar work of “The Storm” – any of these songs might have fit onto any number of Son Volt albums.

All of the familiar touchstones are present and accounted for: the world-weary voice; densely-structured, often introspective lyrics; tinges of country; and a proclivity for Neil Young-esque snarling guitars (just try to listen to “Cherokee St.” without hearing Young’s iconic guitar tone). Notes of Blue largely offers what listeners have come to expect from Farrar. The trouble is, he’s done it so many times before and better elsewhere that it feels more a self-reflexive retread than the step forward it might have been given Farrar’s recent fascination with the blues.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Holy Hell! Yeah Yeah Yeahs EP Turns 20

Like their fellow members of the class of 2001, Yeah Yeah Yeahs would ultimately prove not…