Friday, May 15, 2009

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.


At 5/15/2009 8:44 AM, Blogger Jared said...

I'm glad I saw disclaimer #2, because I was thinking just that. Their new DVD *Ashes of American Flags* is great too.

At 5/15/2009 8:56 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

And I really like the mp3 downloads that come with it (as good as Kicking Television, if not better). If I could, I'd force them to record their next album live. In the studio they let themselves get in their way too much.

At 5/15/2009 5:38 PM, Blogger Dustin said...

I'm also glad to see disclaimer #2 as there's an outside chance I might see Wilco in Brooklyn with Yo La Tengo. If I go, I'll try to record something.

I enjoyed "Sky Blue Sky," but I quickly cooled on it. I still find myself listening to A Ghost...", so I'm hoping this newest album will be an underrated classic, too, if not for the same reasons (what you said about getting in their own way...I think it has rawer sound than Sky).

At 5/15/2009 6:02 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


My guess is you'll like this one for a bit, then, and then cool on it. "Bull Black Nova" has "please play me live" written all over it, so maybe that one will keep you going a bit.

Seeing Wilco with Yo La Tengo would be a wonderful experience.

At 5/16/2009 7:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First off let me start by saying that I consider both bands (and Uncle Tupelo) as three of my favorite of all time...I am absolutely in love with the new Son Volt. Definetely harkens back to Trace with one of the greatest songs since Windfall, in Dust of Daylight...Roll On, Cocaine and Ashes, Dynamite, No Turning Back, Pushed to Far and Jukebox of Steel are all stellar tracks...Unfortunately I cant say the same for the new Wilco...Where Jay has put out a couple stinkers (notably solo album Terrior Blues and the last two Son Volt 2.0 records), I cant say the same about Tweedy...Until now...Son Volt is finally back...Wilco needs to take some time off and re-think their gameplan.

At 5/16/2009 7:36 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

When new albums come out by bands I follow really closely, I tend to think I like them more than I end up liking them. Such was the case with Wilco's A Ghost Is Born and Son Volt's Okemah. (The Search has stayed with me a bit more.)

So, when first listening to American Central Dust, I tried to contain my enthusiasm. But it's been a couple mroe days of constant listening, and I have to say I'm still just totally thrilled with it. Of the 12 songs on it, only maybe two or three are less than among the best songs Jay Farrar has written. It's been a long time coming, but this really should be the year for Son Volt.

I feel similarly about the new Cracker album, Sunshine in the Land of Milk and Honey. It's getting back to the simple, straight-ahead vision that they started with.

On the other hand, it's going to be difficult for Wilco to get out from under the "easy-listening (with noise elements)" tag they've gotten.

At 5/16/2009 2:01 PM, Blogger JohnnyMeltone said...

My concern with Wilco (The Album) as much as I love it, and I do, is that it sounds more like a Jeff Tweedy pop solo album than the rest of their catalog. Bull Black Nova is the only track that that feels like the amazing current-lineup-as-band. The rest of the album finds Jeff supported by vital & creative session players. I love the current lineup of Wilco, but I'll be surprised if they are intact for the next album. Probably a good thing.

At 5/18/2009 6:38 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I think the same thing. It's not the worst record ever made (I like it better than AM, for instance), but it is the least Wilco-as-band album (even as A Ghost Is Born should have felt more like a Tweedy solo effort, it didn't) so far.

I'm guessing Tweedy is feeling the pressure to just go do his own thing (like they all seem to do at some point [the not very strong Jay Farrar solo albums come to mind]). And maybe that's important to his future. I mean you can't keep doing the same thing over and over (well, you can, but it seems to come [for some reason that doesn't seem necessary] with diminishing returns).

WV: endles


At 6/09/2009 8:03 AM, Blogger Chkn said...

The Son Volt CD, "American Central Dust" starts off poorly in my opinion. Almost deathly boring. Then suddenly at the 6th track, "The Wheels don't move" they kick it back into shape. From there they redeem themselves. But that being said, most of the tunes are a rehash of other tunes with different lyrics. This pains me to state this because I really do like this band, a lot. The CD is a let down after such stellar CD's like Okemah and The Search.

At 6/09/2009 4:07 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hey Chkn,

A lot of this really just comes down to taste. For me, Trace was the masterwork of Son Volt, and this album - though one could call it a retread - feels to me to be a return to Farrar's "classic" way of doing things.

True, if the last two SV albums are favorites, then I could see why this one would feel like a let down.

But one thing I'll directly argue with you on: track two, Down to the Wire, especially, I think, kicks things.

At 6/15/2009 8:55 PM, Blogger junius worth said...

Tweedys best work was when the late great jay bennett was pushing him with being there, summerteeth, yankee and the mermaid albums. At the same time farrar was doing solo stuff after spliting with warner. Average stuff mostly I admit. The last three wilco albums including this one have been subpar mostly. Where as son volt last three including this one have all been better than the wilco albums. I love both bands but I will always side with the great farrar. If you read this please contact me at

At 6/16/2009 1:38 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I wish that Wilco and Son Volt didn't have the kind of split between them that they do. oth bands have put out some wonderful music, and both bands have put out some so-so stuff (as, for me, the last two Wilco albums - and the Jay Farrar albums).

One shouldn't have to side with one or the other, but we tend to do that. I blame Wilco fans!



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