After the seminal alt-country/Americana band Uncle Tupelo dissolved following the ironically-titled (?) Anodyne of 1993, co-founder Jay Farrar (READ OUR INTERVIEW WITH JAY) established Son Volt as a means to continue the pioneering of American roots music. The well-prepared and stylish twentieth anniversary package of their debut album from Rhino Records, Trace, both extends and deepens the process of exploration.
Farrar produced the reissue and was involved in the remastering of the original eleven track studio album, so it’s little surprise both the acoustic and electric textures of guitars, fiddle and banjo now have an almost tactile presence that makes the emotion even more resonant within lyrics of songs such as “Windfall” and “Tear-Stained Eye”. The cautious optimism of the former permeates throughout the material of Trace and finds a direct echo in the cover of Ron Wood’s “Mystifies Me” that closes the album proper. And that cut’s easygoing sense of purpose also emanates from the song-by-song notes written by Jay Farrar that appear in the booklet (the absence of enclosed song lyrics within which would make this thirty-seven track set truly comprehensive).
Accompanying that content is No Depression magazine founder Peter Blackstock’s healthily detached reminiscence of the genesis of Son Volt, the quartet’s early bonding further amplified by the inclusion on disc two of a 1996 appearance at New York’s now-defunct Bottom Line. The band proceeds through the bulk of Trace (plus “Cemetery Savior”, a song that would appear on their sophomore album Straightaways) with equal parts confidence and authority, validation of Farrar’s decision to proceed in his chosen direction,with his own group (comprised of Uncle Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn, bassist/vocalist Jim Boquist, plus his multi-instrumentalist sibling Dave). Particularly noteworthy is the rendition of Del Reeves’ “Looking at the World Through A Windshield” that concludes the set and connects directly to the latest Son Volt title, 2013’s Honky Tonk.
The inclusion of Uncle Tupelo tracks Son Volt played this February night, among them “Anodyne” and “Slate,” only reaffirms the abandon and requisite punch with which the ensemble rocks for the better part of the show, the latter a bittersweet acoustic exception to the aforementioned rule. And hearing the package in sequence makes for an insightful segue from the unreleased material. Reminiscent of some of Pete Townshend’s prep work for Who studio recordings, the eight demos at the end of disc one depict the evolution of Jay Farrar’s material in the most immediate way possible as he plays all of the instruments. Yet, even in stripped-down form, songs like “Loose String” and the acoustic demo of “Route” belie the forlorn tone of the author’s voice; instead, the clear-headed resolve that’s earmarked Farrar’s career over the last twenty years is as readily apparent and utterly convincing in these recordings as in the studio work and the newly-mixed performance that accompany them.