I’m going to do the unthinkable and review a Son Volt record without pontificating on the importance of Jay Farrar’s previous band, alt.country (whatever that is) pioneers Uncle Tupelo.
I’ll also avoid fruitless comparisons to Wilco, the other outfit spawned by Uncle Tupelo’s 1994 demise. That was 23 years ago, and as someone much brighter than me once sang, “There was a time. That time is gone.”
At just under 31 minutes, “Notes of Blue” is the shortest LP in Farrar’s storied post-UT discography, which includes 8 studio albums with Son Volt, 2 solo LPs, a film score, and collaborative projects with Benjamin Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Anders Parker (Varnaline), and Will Johnson (Centro-matic).
Over the course of that catalog, Farrar has explored a number of different places and their accompanying sounds, including the twin fiddles of Bakersfield, the honky-tonks of Branson and Barstow, the woods of Big Sur, the hum of Midwestern factory belts, the frozen football fields of Montana, and the hoping machines of Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl.
And yet, there is one place that he seems to return to time and again—the Mississippi Delta.
In a world of dead promises, diesel fumes, and feed kill chains, Farrar—a native of St. Louis—has repeatedly found solace on the banks of the Father of Waters, along the pavement of Highway 61.
“Notes of Blue” is a Delta record through and through, and, not coincidentally, it is one of Farrar’s most optimistic works to date. Using the tunings and techniques of blues legends Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell, Farrar weathers storms, remembers lost souls, and dreams about traveling to Cairo, Ill., to ease the trouble on his mind.
As on all of his records, he paints a bleak picture of the world—downtrodden men lose their shirts on whiskey and women, talented bands disappear because listeners don’t give them the attention they deserve, and swindling confidence men sell souls on the company dime.
But on Notes of Blue, there is hope. Distant Cairo and California represent the promise of starting anew. When a guy’s back is pressed against the wall, he perseveres despite the long odds. Even the grave injustices of mass incarceration are juxtaposed with the smile of a girl on St. Louis’ Cherokee Street.
As Farrar sings on album opener, “Promise the World,” “There will be damage, there will be hell to pay / Light after darkness, that is the way.”
“Back Against the Wall,” in addition to its buoyant message, finds Farrar playing his first electric guitar solo on a Son Volt record in 20 years. It is also my early front-runner for song of the year.
A month into the Trump presidency, “Notes of Blue” is the record I needed. Jay Farrar, ever the student of history, astutely reminds us that “There will be times of injustice, times when there’s more lost than found.” More importantly, however, “What survives the long cold winter will be stronger and can’t be undone.”