Son Volt Strike Back With Steady & Symbolic ‘Electro Melodier’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Son Volt’s Electro Melodier is very much a sequel to its  2019 predecessor Union. On the latter, Jay Farrar not only dissected the abiding nature of the bond implicit its title, but also its fragmented counterpart as well. With virtually no direct references to the actual politics of the time, he instead used his allusive grasp of language and the band’s innate instrumental economy to point out how our larger cultural and social affairs are a direct reflection of our personal relationships. 

On this tenth album by the band he founded in 1994 upon the demise of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo, the band’s titular leader and chief composer concern himself not only with the obvious ramifications of the COVID19 lockdowns, but also the ripple effects arising from the resumption of our lives in a redefined normalcy. Casting a discerning and understanding eye all around him (and us), Farrar never descends to sloganeering or preaching any more than his band falls prey to self-indulgence in their musicianship; spirited as is the playing and singing, there’s not a whit of ennui during the course of this album’s fifty-plus minutes playing time within the likes of  “Someday Now.” 

The fourteen tracks are fueled by a mix of uncertainty and anticipation, but Son Volt’s collective composure never falters. Arising from the stasis of quarantine, Farrar’s newest material speaks to and of confinement, but as on “Reverie,” with a staunch declaration of fortitude. While the band plays steadily on that opener, for “Arkey Blue” they are steadfast in the valiant collective attempt to alternately break free of constraints and/or find a source of comfort in that uncomfortable zone: the kick and rumble of drums and bass, from Andrew Duplantis and Mark Patterson respectively, echo below Chris Frame and Mark Spencer’s twanging, distorted guitars, symbolic of the restlessness. 

Son Volt wields their instruments with a panache rooted in a desire to escape from the depth of an insularity the likes of which they (and we?) have never known. If, in contrast, Jay Farrar’s singing sounds stoic to the point of monotony, that’s his style, but it’s particularly effective in communicating an abundance of caution. Accordingly, when he sings ‘….We won’t know where we stand till December…,’ the lines sound startling in their prescience. Likewise, on cuts like “Diamonds and Cigarettes,” the familiarity of this band’s well-honed sound—plus the plaintive strains of Laura Cantrell’s vocal harmonies– sweetens sentiments otherwise tainted with bitterness.

The band’s chief songwriter does indeed declare a “War On Misery” though, with lyrics to that song and the latter: ‘…All the hard lessons with no regrets…For all the dreams we’ve lost and left…We’re still diamonds and cigarettes…’ If that defensive stance seems a gateway to perpetual struggle, that’s only a direct reflection of Son Volt’s prolific nature in the midst of adversity; in their  minds, unless you happen to be one of the “Lucky Ones” there’s no choice: ‘Gotta keep on movin’…can’t let any grass grow under your feet.’ A forlorn Farrar sings those lines over a bluesy acoustic backing, which then turns to vigorous strumming for “Livin’ in the USA” (not Steve Miller’s song): that visceral action underpinning an acerbic, almost surreal parsing of a body divided, this performance holds together via the forward thrust of the quintet. Throughout Electro Melodier, the quintet’s momentum arises from arrangements are as crisp and potent as the playing, which in itself is as intelligently wrought as the material.

Notwithstanding those virtues, even as Farrar and company mix up the arrangements to include piano and organ as on “These Are The Times,” they don’t offer anything new here. Perhaps it’s a rationalization to laud their maintenance of a recognizable style rather than criticize it for the absence of innovative ideas. Still, given the duration of the bandleader’s entire career—over thirty years since the debut of the aforementioned groundbreaking band—it’s no small accomplishment to remain distinctly stylish, within the stability of the current lineup, especially in such tumultuous times as these.

Given this latest record juxtaposes the vintage bluegrass-folk of “Rebetika” with the socially-conscious folk-rock of “The Globe-Prelude,” Woody Guthrie would be proud and perhaps even a little envious of these guys, especially if he had a chance to hear the open-minded and empathetic inquiries within “Like You.” With Son Volt touring inevitable to provide support for this record—the quarantine restrictions from which the download-only concert recordings 26 Live arose—these musicians will no doubt encounter fodder aplenty for new material based on our post-pandemic way of life. 

It’s not then unreasonable that given their hardy work ethic, Jay Farrar and company will have another chapter to add to their ongoing chronicle of the 2020s as we knew them. At that point, all of which they describe in such vivid terms may all seem as much of an echo of the past as the vintage amplifiers after which Electro Melodier is titled. If not, the currency of the work will be even more striking.

Photo by Ismael QuintanillaIII

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