Son Volt: ‘dire optimism’ – with a tune
ASPEN – It’s doubtful that anyone will turn to “American Central Dust,” the new album (set for release Tuesday, July 7) by Son Volt, for a light-hearted pick-me-up. The album has Jay Farrar, the singer-songwriter who leads the band’s ever-shifting lineup, reflecting on Hurricane Katrina in “Pushed Too Far,” and thinking about the moribund economy in “When the Wheels Don’t Move.” It’s not only on modern-day America that Farrar casts his dark eye: On “Sultana,” he dredges up the 1865 explosion of the Mississippi River paddlewheel boat – “the worst American disaster of the maritime,” he calls it, one that killed perhaps 1,800 people. “Hell was a better place that night,” he concludes. For fun, Farrar revisits the anecdote about Keith Richards mixing his father’s dusty remains with some cocaine, and snorting up the concoction, in “Cocaine and Ashes.””This record is relatively optimistic,” is Farrar’s summation of his latest work. And he’s not kidding. For one thing, it’s hard to picture him joking around, and certainly not in the context of an interview. The 42-year-old Midwesterner is stiff onstage, deadly earnest in his writing, and generally grim-faced in photographs. His singing voice is dry and direct.And, as Farrar observes, his standards for sanguinity are fairly skewed.”Someone else called [“American Central Dust”] ‘dire optimism,’ which I thought was pretty interesting,” said Farrar from his home in St. Louis, where he was starting band rehearsals for the upcoming tour. “Maybe my definition of optimism is a little different than the norm. The darker side of emotional life can be captivating. I don’t know if it’s like a moth drawn to a flame or not.”Actually, if there is a Jay Farrar album that might be called optimistic, it would be the previous one, 2007’s “The Search,” at least in terms of the sound. There, Farrar – working under the name of Son Volt, the band he launched in the mid-’90s – incorporated horns and backwards guitar loops into his usual foundation of acoustic and pedal steel guitars. The effect was not quite jubilant, but it loosened things up, and tended to obscure the fact that Farrar’s lyrics were filled with images of slow hearses, hurricanes and earthquakes, methamphetamine and the heartlessness of the automated society.”The approach there was more about trying out instruments we hadn’t used before,” said Farrar, who used a different lineup of musicians on “American Central Dust” than on previous Son Volt albums.On “American Central Dust,” those instruments are gone. In their place, most prominently, are the pedal steel and lap steel, both often noted for the melancholic effect they lend to country music. Son Volt pushes that angle to the limit on “Exiles,” a song about how the American government has failed the individual citizen, that features Chris Masterson and Mark Spencer on dueling lap steels.”I’ve always been fascinated by the pedal steel. It’s evocative,” Farrar said. “Its origins go back to Hawaii, was picked up by Spanish and Portuguese sailors, then made its way eastward. And then found itself in the heart of country music.”Farrar said the sound on “American Central Dust” was a matter of “the pendulum swinging back to a more string aesthetic” following the expansive sound of “The Search.” But it also had to do with the way the album came together. For the latest work, Farrar had just a dozen songs, all of which made the final cut.”With just 12 songs, it allowed for a lot more pre-production, and envisioning which instruments would go where,” he said. “We thought this could be a more focused record, a more straightforward arrangement and overall aesthetic. It wasn’t about pushing boundaries, but getting back to more familiar ground. With ‘The Search,’ it was about throwing it all out there and seeing what sticks.”Another not-so-apparent factor in the sound of “American Central Dust” was Farrar’s emphasis on standard guitar tuning. On previous albums he had delved heavily into alternate tunings, which can give a song a distinctive harmonic feel. To give his ears another shake-up, he returned to the customary way of tuning the guitar strings.”I felt from a creative standpoint, it was good to get out of alternate tunings, to continue to be inspired,” he said. “With standard tuning this time, it would make this record a little different.”Farrar has demonstrated a frequent need to shake things up. In 1987, he and Jeff Tweedy formed the Illinois band Uncle Tupelo, whose four albums went a long way toward defining the alt-country movement. While Tweedy moved on to form the essential ’00 rock band Wilco, Farrar founded Son Volt in 1995. After three albums, he abandoned the band, and made three albums under his own name. But just as he found the need for a break from alternate tunings, Farrar learned that he needed to embrace collaboration once again. In 2005, he reformed Son Volt to release “Okemah and the Melody of Riot.””I’ve found working in a group dynamic is a platform I enjoy most,” he said. “Where everyone is collaborating, feeding off each other to a common goal.” Farrar says he learned a lot from going it alone. “But I learned you come up against your limitations more.”When we spoke, Farrar was about to embark on a new kind of collaboration. Son Volt was set to go on tour with Cowboy Junkies, the Canadian roots-rock group that shares a similar downbeat mood, in both sound and lyrics. Farrar didn’t know the members of Cowboy Junkies at all, though he gives them a tip of the hat for turning him on to the late Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt: Farrar recalls reading in the early ’90s that Van Zandt was going to tour with Cowboy Junkies; it was the first time he heard of Van Zandt, and he was moved to check out his work. It had a definite impact on Farrar’s own writing.Another major influence was Keith Richards. Uncle Tupelo recorded its 1991 album, “Still Feel Gone,” at Long View Farms in Massachusetts, where the Rolling Stones had rehearsed for a tour a decade earlier. Farrar heard that Richards played piano extensively at Long View, which inspired Farrar to learn the rudiments of the instrument and expand his musical horizons.”Cocaine and Ashes,” said Farrar, is his tribute to Richards. It’s an odd tribute; Farrar makes a quasi-heroic act out of Richards snorting up his father’s remains. “I’m the same as everyone, just kinda lucky,” he sings.”That struck me as someone not afraid to be honest,” Farrar said. “That’s how he wanted to pay tribute to his deceased father.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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