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RDR CD REVIEW: 'American Central Dust' by Son Volt

'American Central Dust' by Son Volt (Rounder Records)
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By Andrew W. Griffin

Red Dirt Report, editor

Posted: July 7, 2009

reddirtreporter@gmail.com

Red Dirt Report album review: Son Volt – American Central Dust (Rounder Records)

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Talking this past week to his hometown paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Son Volt singer and founder Jay Farrar told pop music writer Kevin C. Johnson that he doesn’t get caught up trying to pigeonhole the style of music his rootsy band creates.

“I don't want to call it 'Americana' though it has 'American' in the title,” Farrar told Johnson. “I don't like to be put in a box, so I don' have a name for what I do.”

But in reality, Farrar and his band have been firmly entrenched in Americana and alt-country since they released their critically-acclaimed 1995 debut “Trace.” That album was released after Farrar’s previous band, Uncle Tupelo, had called it quits. Farrar started Son Volt and Farrar’s partner Jeff Tweedy started Wilco.

Sure, they’ve veered off into psychedelic rock and added synths and horns here and there over the years, but the sober-minded Farrar has never strayed too far from his roots. That is the case with Son Volt’s latest album, American Central Dust, their first for Rounder Records.

Like Trace, and their follow-up Straightaways, Son Volt takes listeners on a dusty American journey down the backroads of life. There are fiddles, pedal steel and acoustic guitars. Farrar is firmly embracing the alt-country sound this go around.

And the lyrics and music seem more focused on American Central Dust than they were on the more experimental 2007 album, The Search.

Since The Search, Son Volt lost guitarist Brad Rice to Keith Urban’s backing band, but Chris Masterson has proven to be quite good since leaving Jack Ingram’s band to play with Son Volt. Bassist Andrew Duplantis, drummer Dave Bryson, keyboardist/steel guitar player Mark Spencer are all good players and round out Son Volt in a dynamic way.

In the case of “Dynamite,” the accordion-tinged track that kicks off the album, Farrar compares love to explosions going off on the Fourth of July. Very timely.

While not one to display a more sensitive side, as on “Dynamite,” Farrar does seem more comfortable in his own skin. It’s as if he doesn’t feel that he and his band are forever competing with Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. I suppose as long as those two bands exist, comparing and contrasting the two will continue. Still, Son Volt is its own entity and has its own personality. And, of course, Son Volt is Jay Farrar when you get right down to it.

But back to the music. Among the more interesting tracks are “Cocaine and Ashes,” a song about Keith Richards and the story that the Rolling Stones guitarist had snorted cocaine mixed with his father’s ashes as a sign of his love, one would suppose.

“I’ve had strychnine, I thought I was dead / I snorted my father and I’m still alive,” Farrar sings plaintively over a simple piano.

Sure, “Cocaine and Ashes” is a strange topic for a song but Farrar has a keen sense of the idiosyncratic side of life and it really seems to work.

“Dust of Daylight” is a more traditional-styled country song, while the more social-issue-oriented “When the Wheels Don’t Move” has Farrar singing about high gas prices and regular folks being unable to afford to drive.

Spencer’s organ work on “No Turning Back” is superb while his subtle pedal steel chops are appealing on “Pushed Too Far,” a tale of two cities – hurricane-ravaged New Orleans and Farrar’s hometown of St. Louis.

The best track, however, is the epic song “Sultana.” The Sultana was a steamboat that was destroyed in an explosion on the Mississippi River at the end of the Civil War in 1865. It was the worst maritime disaster in American history, with as many as 1,800 of the 2,400 passengers dying in the disaster. Farrar, a fan of American history and traditional music, captures the mournful feel of this ship song perfectly.  Sort of a 19th-via-21st century version of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

Earlier this year, Red Dirt Report interviewed Farrar prior to a Son Volt show in Oklahoma City. He noted that in addition to working on American Central Dust, he and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie have been working on music to accompany a new documentary on beat poet Jack Kerouac called One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur.

“I’m doing a whole bunch of songs,” Farrar said at the time. “I’ve got 12 at this point.”

Since then, the movie appears to have come out and a video for the song "San Francisco" is available at www.kerouacfilms.com., although an interview with My Old Kentucky Blog, Farrar said the full recording could be out this October.

Regardless, more music from Mr. Farrar is expected. He does release solo albums from time to time, like the 2001 release Sebastopol.

Of course this is great since he is one of the finest American singer-songwriters working today.

For more information go to www.sonvolt.net. This review will also appear in Friday's edition of "Pop" in The Norman Transcript.

Grade - A

Copyright 2009 West Marie Media

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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