Notes of blue
Alternative country stalwart, Jay Farrar, helps Son Volt on their 8th studio album in their 21st year. Notes of Blue retains a familiar sound for Son Volt, due to Farrar’s distinctive voice, phrasing and instrumentation, even pulling out a vintage Webster-Chicago amp used on Trace in 1995. However, the album also harkens back to older acoustic and electric blues, notably Mississippi Fred McDowell and Skip James. Farrar studied their guitar playing and alternate tunings, tuning down his guitar to give it a more haunting feel. Album opener, Promise the World, begins with a familiar pedal steel guitar moaning over strummed acoustic guitar, that soon dances with a fiddle playing a counter-melody. Solemn lyrics tell of “hell to pay,” but “light after darkness, that is the way.” The second track, Back Against the Wall has a more redemptive message, closing with a guitar solo that hints at a newfound ferocity that stems from these alternate blues tunings. Standout track, Cherokee St. takes its name from an actual street in St. Louis, close to Farrar’s hometown of Belville, IL, where a man can lose his fortune but still walk away satisfied after seeing a girl’s smile. After an opening verse fingerpicked on a buzz saw of a guitar, the song transforms into a foot stomping blues number — raw and gritty — with the buzz of an open circuit. Overall, the album’s strongest tracks are those where Farrar lets the guitar be the hero, and mostly when it is plugged in, tuned down, and turned up. My only disappointment is that knowing Son Volt so well, the songs feel borrowed from another time and place, not Farrar’s.
For his sophomore album, Sam Outlaw has delivered another batch of 13 sincere country songs that avoid the trappings of the Nashville sound machine. The songs are an appropriately diverse set in terms of both content and instrumentation with Outlaw’s voice front and center in the mix. Tenderheart harkens back to a more authentic and honest chapter of American country music in tone, instrumentation, and lyrical content. Absent are country clichés of getting drunk, partying on boats, or dirt roads. The pick-ups he sings of happen in bars, not what he drove to get there. The album is particularly strong through the middle third with songs like She’s Playing Hard to Get (Rid Of), Two Broken Hearts, and All My Life, where he plays with the tempo, slowing down slightly halfway through, before speeding up at the end, sending a positive message. To be sure, there are wistful plaintive tracks as well, punctuated by the crying of Jeremy Long’s pedal steel and bandmate Molly Jenson’s lovely harmonies. I especially appreciated the contrast in sound between a song like Say It to Me that ascends into a wall of sound, building from a single voice and guitar to a crescendo of sound and album closer, Look at You Now that features Outlaw and Jenson’s voices over a gently strummed guitar, organ and bass that is so understated you might miss it.