Artist: Son Volt
Album: Notes of Blue
Label: Thirty Tigers
Release Date: 02/17/2017
Much has been made of the Townes Van Zandt quote, “There are only two kinds of songs,” There’s the blues, and there’s zip-a-dee-doo-dah.” When I first heard that Son Volt was essentially doing a blues album, I found it a bit puzzling. Die-hard Son Volt fans need not worry. While there are inflections of blues song-wise, rhythmically, and through Mark Spencer’s Weissenborn, the album reads much more like vintage Son Volt than as a blues record. That’s good news. After all, Jay Farrar has one of the most distinctive voices in roots-rock and this record, albeit way too short at only thirty minutes, comes off powerfully. Farrar’s weathered, unvarnished, deeply resonant voice has always been the driving force of Son Volt and this is no exception. Yet, in some of the earlier material his voice can linger and almost sound too laid back. Not here. This has some real thump, and yes, it’s surely more blues than zip-a-dee-doo-dah.
Notes of Blue is the 20th album—including a couple live releases and two movie soundtracks —to which Farrar has lent his voice and songwriting. And, although I’m sure he is familiar to readers of these pages, he’s far from a household name. Of course, the landmark work of Uncle Tupelo comes to mind and this marks the seventh Son Volt album, the previous one being 2013’s Honky Tonk. His four solo albums and especially his collaboration with Ben Gibbard, One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Music from Kerouac’s Big Sur, are also worth seeking out.
Let’s get back to the blues theme. This is not a record that will be nominated for the Blues Music Awards. The blues serve as a jumping off point for Farrar as he uses its language, themes, and cultural motifs to shape these songs. As he says, “For years I’ve been drawn to the passion, common struggle and possibility for redemption that’s always been a part of the blues. Everyone has to pay the rent and get along with their significant others, so many of the themes are universal. For me, the blues fills that void that’s there for religion, really. That’s the place I turn to be lifted up.” The unique and haunting tunings of Mississippi Fred McDowell, Skip James and Nick Drake were all points of exploration for Farrar. “To me there’s always been a mystique attached to those three tunings and those three performers,” Farrar says. “So I was compelled to get inside those tunings and see what was there. Skip James’ tuning in particular, supposedly has its origins in the Bahamas, it’s a D-Minor tuning, so it has built into it kind of an intangible haunting effect. Something you can’t quite put your finger on but it’s there.”
To be fair, there’s more finger picking and slide than on the other Son Volt albums. The band attains some rambunctious moments with these elements, especially the slide on “Static” and the crunching rhythm on “Static.” “Cherokee St.” and “Sinking Down” emote swagger and fury too. Yet, tracks such as “The Storm” and “Cairo and Southern” seamlessly meld blues with hypnotic melodies that add the requisite quiet balance.
It’s refreshing to see Farrar and the band exploring some different sounds. Crank this one up. Son Volt will be touring the album vigorously beginning next month. Catch them live. I certainly plan to.