Jay Farrar has one of the best and most distinctive voices in the classic mould of 60s cosmic/folk-rock Americana this side of Gram Parsons and Roger McGuinn, so it’s good to welcome Notes of Blue, Son Volt’s eighth album and first release since 2013’s Honky Tonk. The line-up this time is Mark Spencer on bass, slide and piano, Gary Hunt on fiddle, pedal steel man Jason and drummer Jacob Edwards.
The title derives from the fact that, for this album, Farrar drew on old rural blues in terms of both musical structure and themes. Indeed, on the bass driven semi-spoken gospel-noir album closer Threads and Steel, he even draws on Lead Belly’s lyrics for There’s A Man Going Round Names. But, hey, so did Johnny Cash.
He mentions Nick Drake, Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams influences, but, most notably, the guitar tunings of Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell, the former’s use of minor keys and the latter’s slide. In doing so, he says it opened up different creative options and chords.
This isn’t to suggest he’s gone all Delta. In fact, the opening track, Promise The World, with his signature fragile and weary vocals, finds him in classic aching alt-country mode, evoking the sound of their 1995 debut album, Trace, although apparently, the alternate tuning is the same as on Drake’s Pink Moon. Much the same holds true of the second number, the terrific Back Against the Wall, a song about taking on adversity, on which he sounds a like a cross between McGuinn and Springsteen, only here he also plugs in his electric guitar for a wall of Neil Young waves.
In fact, turning up the amps again was apparently another of the album’s motivations, even to the extent of using the same 1930s Webster Chicago amp featured on the cover of Trace cover. Things get decidedly throaty in that department with the riffs on display in Static and, once it gets under way, the rasping slide snarl of the tribal rhythm Cherokee Street. It’s even noisier with the blistering two-minute rock out of Lost Souls while Sinking Down is a bluesy boogie with distorted slide guitar leading the charge, albeit punctuated by a brace of slower Appalachian folk bridges stretched the loose-limbed flurry.
Not everything works, Midnight is bluesy dirge with Farrar’s vocals sounding like they’re coming up from the depth of the hell he’s singing about, while, however effective the spacey 60s psychedelia miasma of the sparsely fingerpicked troubled mind acoustic blues Cairo and Southern may be, it feels out of place here.
Whilst Cairo and Southern stretches to four and a half minutes, the remainder rarely exceeds the three-minute mark, the whole album clocking in at just over half an hour. Even so, and especially given something like the simple traditional-styled folk blues whisky and women lament of The Storm, these notes never leave you feeling short-changed.
Notes of Blue is Out Now via Thirty Tigers
Order via Amazon