Son Volt’s latest is good but not Farrar’s best

Posted by Greg on Mar 7, 2017 in Music |

Twenty years removed from Son Volt’s landmark debut album Trace, St. Louis singer-songwriter Jay Farrar is still at it. Though the band has changed hands multiple times since the 1997 album, he’s still hard at work trying to recreate that very same magic. Some critics have panned Farrar for writing the same album time and time again, and while that isn’t exactly incorrect, any time Farrar releases new music it is something pretty special.

According to Farrar, Notes of Blue was his attempt at a blues album and while it veers very far from that idea, there are a couple moments that chase down that idea. Foremost of those is the weary “The Storm.” In just three minutes, Farrar sounds as defeated as he has in quite some time. While that’s not something to get excited about, it does attach itself to the album’s theme and serves in some as the album’s defacto title track. That’s a title it might share with the dreary and dismal “Cherokee St,” which offers little in the way of hope, inspiration and warm sentimentality. Then again, Farrar has never really married those thoughts. His America is always far bleaker.

Similar to “The Storm,” the defeated “Cairo and Southern,” mines the same territory, but also harkens back to Son Volt’s Wide Swing Tremolo days, a place this writer wishes Son Volt would hover near more often. Farrar has always been keen on ratcheting up the guitars for Son Volt albums and he does exactly that on five of the ten. The strongest of the five is the brawny “Sinking Down.”

The album’s most complete effort is the near-perfect “Back Against the Wall,” and it is those three minutes that Farrar proves even 20 years removed from Trace he still has that magic. Unfortunately, none of the other ten efforts on Notes of Blue comes anywhere close to the zenith that is “Back Against the Wall.” For that reason alone, the album falls short. Though its on par with Son Volt’s most recent outing, Honky Tonk, it’s still not quite Farrar at his best. Twenty years in, he should be delivering the best records of his career. For many the album will be a throwaway, but for this writer, it’s always a special thing that Farrar continues to write music. So here’s to celebrating Jay Farrar, the criminally under-appreciated poet laureate of the American Midwest.

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