Even as he devotes the majority of time to his ongoing solo career, Jay Farrar has applied a no less discerning focus on those projects with his post-Uncle Tupelo band, Son Volt. For the first group endeavor in four years, Notes of Blue, Farrar informs ten new songs with (by his own admission) the influence of English folk hero Nick Drake as much as one of the blues genre’s seminal figures, Mississippi Fred McDowell. The juxtaposition of styles imparts a distinction to this album that solidifies its authenticity on both fronts and confirms the aptitude of the players, making it superior to the last two Son Volt efforts, the country-oriented Honky Tonk (2013) and even the nouveau folk of American Central Dust (2009).
Throughout this record, Farrar taps into the foreboding ennui pervading this country since November of 2016. There’s a forlorn sadness in “Promise the World” offset with resolute acceptance that echoes through the refrain– “There will be damage/There will be hell to pay/Light after darkness/That is the way”– the matter of fact exposition of which benefits from the sturdy backdrop of Jacob Edwards’ drumming combined with Mark Spencer’s mobile basswork. Jason Kardong conjures a bittersweet air that’s ultimately rendered comforting by the tuneful pedal steel he plays.
The purposeful intent suggested in that track flowers on a slightly more uptempo tune, “Backs Against the Wall,” where additional vocal harmonies, carry a soothing sensation contrasting with distorted electric guitar chords and leads. Jay Farrar’s intently aware of what’s going on in the world around him—he might be describing any number of public figures in the ominous closer “Threads and Steel”- but he’s able to state his perceptions with as much economy as the musicians play. Accordingly, “Lost Souls” work so effectively because cacophonous slide punctuates the singing of evocative lyrics.
For all the solemnity in his voice, and the air of cautious optimism in his vocal and writing tone, the bandleader’s not averse to celebrating. On “Static,” Farrar may be describing an overload of stimulation coming from all directions, but the fuzz-drenched chord sequence, combined with the hammer of drums, turns this chorus ironic. Unified in its intent throughout Notes of Blue, Son Volt states its case quickly and to the point with each song here: on “Cherokee St,” for instance, the emerging picture is a grim landscape Farrar and company nevertheless manage to transcend: the most directly blues oriented number here, it’s also (perhaps not coincidentally), one of the most vivid. “Sinking Down” has a similar effect, the modified boogie of the quintet playing off the stasis described in the words.
In an arrangement where deft dobro complements precisely finger-picked acoustic guitar, “The Storm,” unfolds as a clear-cut depiction of the dual influences Farrar’s absorbed and shared with the current ensemble, the raucous electricity that’s always distinguished Son Volt giving way to the intimacy of the man’s voice on its own. Meanwhile, “Cairo and Southern” is an original the likes of which the author mastered long ago, resembling nothing so much as a traditional song brought to life in a new era where its bell-like piano, supplied by indispensable multi-instrumentalist Spencer, counterbalances with comparably clear fiddle by long-time Son Volt member Gary Hunt.
With four of the ten cuts here timing less than three minutes and no extended tracks, Notes of Blue may leave more than a few listeners hungry for more. But that’s ultimately a high compliment, especially when the collection of songs carries as much impact as this one in both musical and philosophical terms.