Back in 1994, alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo split in two seemingly equal parts. Both made critical hit debut albums, but one, the Jeff Tweedy-led Wilco, rode an ever increasing wave of success. The other, Jay Farrar’s Son Volt, has had a steadier, though less visible, run. Three decades later and both bands are still going strong down their own paths.
In February, Son Volt released their eighth album, and first in four years, titled Notes of Blue. Farrar could release a collection of rap or metal and it would still be recognizable as Son Volt. His voice is that much of a signature. In this case, the band washes his voice in the blues, as the album’s title would suggest.
The music is inspired by the blues stylings and specifically tunings of classic pickers Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell, from back when the blues and folk music were one and the same. He also mixes in the more recent sounds of English folky Nick Drake. Inspiration in the right hands doesn’t translate directly to “sounds like” though, and it certainly doesn’t here. Son Volt lends it’s own distinctive hand throughout, crunchy reverb guitar, just enough twang, straight up from-the-earth lyrics. But on Notes of Blue, Son Volt appears with more finger-picking, more slide and perhaps even darker themes.
Though it can get somewhat bogged down in monotonous earth tones at times, natural splashes of color bring the bluesy landscapes to life. The surprising reverb guitar thrashes in “Promise the World,” when Nick Drake’s influence comes to the fore in the lovely ballad “Cairo and Southern,” the pedal-to-the-metal opening of “Static,” the rough and tumble slide blues on “Sinking Down” … yeah, there’s enough color throughout.
At just 30 minutes, Notes of Blue is a quick but dense listen, with a lot of repeated listening value. Of playing the new material live, Farrar says, “It’s going to be an adventure.” He’s excited to take them on the road, but the different tunings will require some extra coordination, “We’re going to have some long talks, with charts about what guitars to use when,” New Yorkers get two chances to catch these original purveyors of alt-country sling their craft, first at Bowery Ballroom on April 7, and then at Rough Trade in Brooklyn on April 8.
Key tracks: Cairo and Southern, The Storm, Sinking Down