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Son Volt's "Union" is a Woody-inspired call to action - with guitars!

Transmit Sound / Thirty Tigers
"Union" is Son Volt's ninth studio album.
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ALBUM REVIEW: UNION by Son Volt (Transmit Sound / Thirty Tigers) 2019

It’s comforting knowing that alt-country rocker Jay Farrar and his Son Volt crew are still out there, recording and touring and reminding those with ears to hear that troubadours-with-a-message are not a throwback to the distant past. No sir, Son Volt has been remarkably consistent, both musically and thematically, for the nearly quarter-century that they have existed, in the wake of the dissolution of critical faves Uncle Tupelo.

And for those of you who have read my glowing reviews of past Son Volt records, be they American Central Dust, Honky Tonk or Notes of Blue, I won’t repeat prior overviews of Farrar and his band’s storied history, but I will say that when I heard the new record – Union – was partly recorded at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa and that Farrar (whose 2005 record Okemah and the Melody of Riot was inspired by Guthrie’s music and message, although Union is more explicit in its political urgency, than the aforementioned, Bush-era record).

Talking to The Boot earlier this year, Farrar admitted that recording a political album in these troubled times “was my job in a way,” adding, optimistically, “(w)hat else can a musician do than to hopefully influence some kind of change?

If only all Americans received a complimentary copy of Union in the mail, right? Well, we know that’s not going to happen, but, like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, one has to do what one can do to stem the tide of nihilism and greed and fraud, traits that seem to be taking an ever-stronger grip on our culture.

So, Farrar, along with guitarist Chris Frame, bassist Andrew DuPlantis, drummer Mark Patterson and multi-instrumentalist Mark Spencer, Son Volt’s Union introduces us to the band’s concerned frame of mind on album opener “While Rome Burns” piercing us with these Fox News truisms, “Mountains of money / Men dressed up as news / And we fiddle while Rome burns.” The song has that Son Volt sound – strummy, acoustic guitars, textures of Hammond organ and electric guitar and simple drumming – and will be immediately recognizable to those familiar with the band over the years.

That said, I would have liked a bit more varied musical textures over the course of these 13 songs - more pedal steel, fiddle, etc. - but the messages offered seem to be more of the point this time around, and that's okay.

Like his Okie hero Woody Guthrie, Farrar wants to shake us out of our stupor. Think of how the Left was left battered and bewildered when President Nixon was re-elected in 1972 – in a landslide – and it seemed as if the wars and greed and violence had won the day. The Left turned inward, largely, giving us the Reagan/Bush years and leading up to present day and the Trump nightmare. Union, I sense, is a call to action, with folky numbers like “The 99,” where the vast majority of Americans (the 99 percent) are left in a “trickle down world / Like you’re stuck in cement.

The dirge-like “Broadsides” reflects the somber situation Farrar sees on the American cultural and political landscape, but not all hope is lost and we “brush the dust off” and work towards ridding ourselves of the “flim-flam” and work for change. Just as Woody would have wanted.

One wonders if national service, required by the U.S. government, would be a major step to unifying our deeply-divided nation? Farrar seems to think so in the album's simple and straightforward title track. 

And even if political songs aren’t entirely your thing, three songs into Union the band offers us “Devil May Care,” a mid-tempo, Trace-esque root-rock number that is more about the life of a touring musician with “(p)hantom power and faders up / keeping time, keeping sane.”

Farrar brings attention to rabble-rousers and truth-tellers like Mother Jones on the folk number "Rebel Girl" and also the plight of Kingsville, Texas native and whistleblower Reality Winner (which is also the name of the moving song), the Air Force senior airman who was jailed for mailing classified information to The Intercept to expose classified intelligence on Russian meddling in the 2016 US election. 

Union ends on a strong note with "The Symbol," a song that offers Farrar's insights and concerns over Trump's demonization and racial animosity towards migrants from Mexico and Central America, reminiscent of some of the songs by Arizona desert-rockers Calexico.

"They say I'm a criminal, that's what they say / My children were born in the USA / They say these children, they too must go / But their home is here, not Mexico."

Again, Jay Farrar and Son Volt admit to being compelled to record an album like Union because of the sad state of our nation. But it could also be argued that Union is also a call to action to all men and women of goodwill and charity around the world to work toward stopping the march of thuggery, fascism and anti-intellecutalism that has grown dramatically in recent years. I, for one, hope Union is heard by many and is taken to heart by all.

Son Volt will perform Tuesday, June 18th at the Jones Assembly in Oklahoma City. For more information go to sonvolt.net/tour/

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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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