Son Volt Furthers Their Evolution With Interweaving ‘Union’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

On Son Volt’s Union, founder and chief songwriter Jay Farrar addresses the discord in our culture without overstating the obvious or resorting to sloganeering. In fact, the very title of the album reflects his interweaving of rock, folk, country and blues in the material (in itself a metaphor of staunch idealism). But this ninth Son Volt studio release is also a logical extension of its splendid predecessor, Notes of Blue: the 2017 record, originally borne out of Farrar’s curiosity about novel guitar tunings, evolved into an understated collection of discerning topical commentary bolstered by potent musicianship.

Recording in part at the Woody Guthrie museum, Farrar furthered the evolution of Union, as evolved from its original concept of social and political observations into a more balanced discourse on personal intimacy and solidarity. The former co-leader of Uncle Tupelo draws on his roots in other subtle ways here too, as if to declare that to do so is not inherently misconceived. And rather than relegate his bandmates to the background, Farrar further ignites the dialogue through the chemistry of the current configuration of Son Volt, yet another fusion in which the combined experience of longstanding contributors to the group’s works, bassist Andrew Duplantis and multi-instrumentalist Mark Spencer, aligns with brand-new drummer Mark Patterson and returning participant guitarist Chris Frame, who toured with Son Volt around the time of 2005’s Okemah and The Melody of Riot.  .

“While Rome Burns” benefits from the bond of redoubtable veterans with the recent recruits as ripples rising from the organ Spencer plays underscores Farrar’s refusal to become lost in the high-minded implications of the song’s conceit. Likewise, “Broadsides” is a testament to the ensemble’s self-discipline and restraint as much as the composer’s deft juggling of the ambiguity in the tune’s title. Rather than simply proffer dogma on this LP with compositions such like “The 99,” the author is more interested in asking questions and prompting his listeners to do the same, a wise move furthered by printing the lyrics in the enclosed booklet of this digipak.

The reference of symbolism in a song like “Reality Winner” would be difficult to miss regardless. But the combination of acoustic guitar and piano, in concert with the bandleader’s customarily doleful vocal, precludes any strident tone. Similarly, “Lady Liberty” radiates a grace befitting what that statue represents, while the understatement on the title song is at the root of Jay Farrar’s avoidance of  simplistic politics; while the performance is quintessential Son Volt, at the same time it extends the versatility of the quintet beyond the electric realm of “The Reason,” the single track of this baker’s dozen that would accurately summarize the virtues of the group for a novice listener.

Through the economy with which he plays, Frame displays an intrinsic understanding of the titular leader/ author’s pithy composing style.   On “Devil May Care,” for instance, the fretboarder’s slightly twangy fills bounce on a beat the Patterson/Duplantis rhythm section maintains with sturdy resolve.  The inclusion of lap steel in “Holding Your Own” is all the more appropriate when juxtaposed with chiming twelve-string reminiscent of the Byrds. And although at a minute fifteen seconds, “Truth To Power Blues” one of the shortest tracks here, this modified twelve-bar instrumental offers food for thought even as it highlights the immaculate recording quality of Union; the audio clarity, overseen by Jay Farrar as producer, is comparable to the lucidity of his own verbal expressions, not to mention the no-frills arrangements.

It’s no coincidence that, within a careful track sequencing, that aforementioned abbreviated genre piece precedes “Rebel Girl,” a paean to any number of public personae populating our current events. Rendered all the more vivid by Son Volt’s combustible playing, Jay Farrar’s imagery isn’t any more likely to become dated than like the rest of this record. On the contrary, it should prove timeless and, appropriately enough,  of a piece with the best work of Jay Farrar’s estimable career.

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