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Gritty "Notes of Blue" shows off Son Volt's folk-blues edginess

Transmit Sound / Thirty Tigers
Alternate cover of Son Volt's new album "Notes of Blue," recorded in St. Louis, Missouri.
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ALBUM REVIEW: Son Volt – Notes of Blue (Transmit Sound / Thirty Tigers) 2017

Perhaps it’s weird to admit Son Volt singer/songwriter Jay Farrar was in a dream I recently had. I don't remember all the details but it seemed like we were aboard a bus or a train. Some form of transportation. And where we were going, I really can't say.

Now that I think about it, I'm really not surprised. I do have "celebrities" in my dreams from time-to-time - Rodney Dangerfield was in one just the other night - but with Farrar, well, considering his depth and seriousness, one wonders what he was doing there.

In any event, this dream seems to coincide with the fact that I have been digging his band's new record and the old-is-new-again sound. It's welcome in this room.

As I’ve often said, over years of reviewing the latest Son Volt record, I was always a Farrar guy when it came to the Uncle Tupelo split of Farrar and Jeff Tweedy. I’m stubborn that way. And I am a big Wilco fan, too!

But I admit to being more interested in the gritty alt-country of Son Volt whenever it comes around. It just seems like the music of the people. I mean I really think Woody Guthrie would have been more into Son Volt than Wilco, even if Wilco and commie folkie Billy Bragg did do that Woody-friendly Mermaid Avenue series nearly 20 years ago.

While Tweedy fled to Chicago, Farrar stuck around St. Louis and Belleville, Illinois, his hometown. I think the Mississippi River runs through Farrar’s veins from time to time, particularly in the studio.

In recent years I really dug 2009’s American Central Dust (reviewed in The Norman Transcript) and I also loved 2013’s Honky Tonk, along with Farrar’s Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs book.

And with the recently-released Notes of Bluethere is a folk-blues sound always within reach of the more standard rock music, with its influences of traditional country, as is usually the case with a  Son Volt record.

Farrar, accompanied by guitarist Chris Frame, bassist Andrew DuPlantis, multi-instrumentalist Mark Spencer and drummer Jacob Edwards

"Give me bread when I'm hungry / Bourbon when I'm dry," Farrar sings, as he seems to channel the ghost of Hank Williams on "Sinking Down."

Farrar switches it up a little with the finger-picking sadness of "Cairo and Southern," where Farrar sounds like a hunted man, hiding in the trees down where the Ohio meets the Mississippi. Hounds baying ...

And on "The Storm," another folk-blues number, tells us of an unlucky guy who just can't catch a break, having wasted all his money on whiskey and women. It's a story long told. And Farrar is here to remind us that it still goes on.

Jacob Edwards' drumstick striking the hi-hat repeatedly on the grim "Midnight" sounds like the slow march of a shackled shade heading to shovel coal in the eternal darkness of Hades.

The more I listen to Notes of Blue, I sense that a long like "Promise the World," sounding like it was recorded way back during the Wide Swing Tremolo era with its prominent pedal steel, courtesy of guest player Jason Kardong, except that in the era of Trump, it's a very contemporary message if you read between the lines: "There will be damage and here will be hell to pay / Light after darkness, that is the way." Well, we can hope, right?

And on the apocalyptic "Lost Souls," a song I mentioned last month in my Dust Devil Dreams post "Corazon de Oro," tells us of floods and droughts and how many of these "lost souls" are "just pawns in a game of chess." Boy, does that ever feel relevant. 

"Cherokee St." has a gritty, guitar-and-drums-driven chug that underlies a carefree feeling, while still maintaining a hard, outer shell. 

Notes of Blue isn't the record you spin during the party on Saturday night. Nope. Rather, it's the one you put on Sunday morning, coming down.

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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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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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