Son Volt and Wilco (one more round)
Son Volt and Wilco (once again!) have new albums coming out at pretty much the same time.
I’ve had the good fortune to listen to them both several times.
I’ll start with the good news:
Son Volt. If you’ve ever liked Son Volt, you will find much to like on this album. Son Volt, much like the new Cracker album (which is also excellent), is going back to Son Volt basics, which means accordions, fiddles, and steel guitars, along with fuzzed out, slow rockers. The most consistent criticism of Son Volt over the years, is Jay Farrar has never been much for phrasing, annunciating, or simply trying to sing well. This is helped quite a bit on this album. He seems to be swallowing the ends of lines a bit less, and droning a bit less, and there are some backing vocals from the rest of the band to help things out.
Much has been said about this album harkening back to Trace. And it’s true. But it’s more as if the spirit that infused Trace was being reinvestigated through the production values of their last couple albums. “Cocaine and Ashes” sounds more like “World Waits for You” than anything on Trace.
In the second half of the album, first “Dust of Daylight” and then “Pushed too Far” vie for being placed next to “Tear Stained-Eye” as Farrar’s best in that mode, while “When the Wheels Don’t Move” is as good an electric lurch through apocalyptic vision as they’ve ever done.
It’s familiar territory, and the echoes to late 60s Dylan and 70s Tom Waits show here and there. This is what Farrar has been running away from since Trace. But he’s always been at his best when the themes are large and the music basic. It's good to have him back.
“We’re exiles now, pulling out of this place . . . . chasing a world to call our own” Farrar sings, on "Exiles" near the end of American Central Dust, and ever since the initial notice Son Volt got after Trace, nearly 15 years ago, it’s been a difficult journey. And while everything they do will continue to be measured against it, maybe, in going back, Farrar can make peace with who he is and what he does best. “A reminder that renewal only happens within.”
Just as 2009 finds Son Volt going back to the center of their sound, Wilco is still wandering the wilderness. The album is streaming here:
Wilco (the album) continues to follow the trajectory of their last few albums, A Ghost Is Born and Sky Blue Sky. If you liked those albums, especially Sky Blue Sky, then Wilco (the Album) will sit well enough with you, though still, it’ll not be distinguished in any particular way. If, on the other hand, you found Sky Blue Sky to be, as one person wrote, “the edgiest album America ever made,” then Wilco (the Album) will come in as the softer sibling, as Jeff Tweedy continues to explore to softer side of 70s easy listening music with brief moments of sonic disturbance here and there, with exceptionally self-regarding lyrics as “if I die I’ll die alone like Jesus on the cross.”
The individual in personal crisis has been Tweedy’s stock in trade for some time now, and he did it best on the brilliant Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which stands for Wilco the way Trace stands for Son Volt, but while Son Volt seems to be making peace with their strongest album, Wilco is still trying to figure out where to go next.
“Bull Black Nova” is as close as they get to really sparking the set up, as it sounds a little like a cross between “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “Handshake Drugs.”
Once I started carrying around a media player, I looked at albums differently. Now, rather than an album being good, I think of how many songs I want to keep from it. The new Son Volt has one track I didn’t keep (“Sultana”). The new Wilco has two tracks I kept (“Bull Black Nova” and “Country Disappeared”).
Disclaimer: Sky Blue Sky, that a lot of people seemed to like, had five tracks that I kept without much enthusiasm, so maybe I’m not the best to talk about recent Wilco.
Disclaimer 2: Wilco is great live.
Also, I kept seven songs from the new Neil Young album, six from the new Dylan album and all the tracks from the new Cracker album.