Posts Tagged ‘Notes Of Blue’

You could say that 2013’s “Honky Tonk” was Son Volt’s “country” album, and the group’s latest is its “blues” album. Reality is rarely that cut and dried, however. So it’s probably best to say that the new “Notes Of Blue” on Thirty Tigers  toys with the achy bluster of ’90s Son Volt—though within an intermittent blues framework. “Overall, the end result winds up being more of an exploration of how various styles intersect with the blues,” says Jay Farrar of the band’s eighth studio release.

Twenty-two years ago, Son Volt kicked off Farrar’s post-Uncle Tupelo run with a definitive bang. Equal to or greater than anything his former group could muster, Trace has been a tough act to follow and it doesn’t help that the album sounds as wrenchingly relevant now as it did in 1995.

As if to simultaneously acknowledge and contain Trace’s considerable shadow, Farrar embarked on a series of subdued shows in 2015 to promote an expanded 20th-anniversary reissue. This was not the Son Volt of old. “It was a good opportunity to reassess those songs and present them in a different way,” says Jay Farrar of his last tour.

Self-produced with help from the revered John AgnelloNotes Of Blue actually benefits from some bait-and-switch tactics. After opening with a pair of tunes—“Promise The World” and “Back Against The Wall”—that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Trace, Farrar abruptly puts on his blues big-boy pants for a series of songs that are as much a departure from the SV formula as you’re likely to hear. On “Cherokee Street,” “Midnight” and the skull-rattling “Static” and “Lost Souls,” Farrar’s sheer determination to work within the limitations of the idiom—the alternate tunings; the simple, succinct lyrics addressing sin, struggle, escape and redemption—actually frees him up to explore new instrumental textures and vocal approaches. Nothing dramatic, mind you just enough to signal growth and evolution for a guy who just turned 50.

To keep things honest, Farrar adhered to the tunings of Mississippi Fred McDowell and Skip James, even cribbing lyrical snippets from old blues numbers as starting points. For further inspiration, he turned to the ragged rural beauty witnessed in the field recordings of music historian George Mitchell (think R.L. Burnside). “The guys at Fat Possum gave me that box set years ago,” says Farrar. “It’s that cross-pollination over centuries that sparks such creativity in music.”

On Notes Of Blue, it all comes together with ferocious perfection on “Sinking Down,” courtesy of Farrar’s darkly orchestral slide guitar and a relief valve of a bridge that emerges with all the beauty of an unexpected vista on a long, unrelenting drive through our country’s Trump-crazed midsection. “After doing those acoustic Trace shows, I definitely wanted to get back to playing some electric guitar,” says Farrar. “I even brought out the Webster Chicago amp used in the photograph for Trace, and this is also the first time I’ve played lead since Trace. So there’s a thread of continuity there.”

Son Volt’s new album, Notes of Blue, is “a tribute and a chance to connect with icons and heroes” for group founder and leader Jay Farrar.

The 10-song set — Son Volt’s eighth studio release and first in four years, due out February. 17th is the culmination of a pair of projects Farrar had in motion. “I was working on two different kinds of projects at the same time,” he says. “A Nick Drake, English folk-inspired project and a more blues-oriented band project.

Ultimately I felt like there was a commonality of purpose there, a common ethic, especially in terms of finger-picking and alternative tunings being a method with all those guys. So eventually those two projects just merged into one.”

The result is an album that has blues at its base  such as the raw shuffle of “Sinking Down,” but with ambience and texture that can be heard in other tracks such as “Lost Souls” and “Cairo and Southern.” “I was aiming for where blues and folk and country music converge,” Farrar explains. “Ultimately I see it as kind of folk record and a rock record with elements of the blues — all of those things. There’s even some garage rock thrown in there,” such as on the stomping “Cherokee St.” and “The Storm.”

The “icons and heroes” he sourced for Notes of Blue were Nick Drake, Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell, specifically tapping into those alternate tunings he mentions. “At first they might seem a bit incongruous together, but I felt like there was a certain mystique attached to the guitar tunings and guitar voicings those guys used,” Farrar says. “They can open a lot of doors or provide a lot of different avenues to go down. It emanates from looking for ways to be challenged, really.”

Farrar was also anxious to strap on his electric guitar again after Notes of Blue predecessors such as 2013’s Honky Tonk and 2009’s rootsy American Central Dust. “Part of that meant bringing out the old Webster Chicago amplifier I used for Son Volt’s (1995 debut) record Trace, the amplifier that’s on the cover of that record,” Farrar says. “It’s a low-powered amp that just delivers a big sound, and I just wanted to revisit the sound of that amp. It sort of represents a quintessential sounding blues amplifier.”

Farrar plans to return to standard guitar tuning for his next project, but first he’ll be taking Son Volt on the road to support Notes of Blue. The trek kicks off March 2nd in Little Rock, Ark., and so far has dates booked into mid-May, including the Stagecoach California Country Music Festival on April 28. The new songs will be fun to play live, he predicts, but Farrar acknowledges that the different tunings will require some coordination with his techs in the wings. “We’re going to have some long talks, with charts about what guitars to use when,” Farrar says. “It’s going to be an adventure.”

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If Jay Farrar’s name is unfamiliar to you, his music shouldn’t be. As one half of Uncle Tupelo, and then fellow bandmate Jeff Tweedy married the roar of punk rock with traditional country sounds for four albums, including their 1990 debut, No Depression, which help spew an entire genre of music now known as alt-country. With Farrar’s Springsteen-like tales of life in the Midwest (the duo hailed from Belleville, Illinois, outside of St. Louis) and Tweedy’s ruminations on love and relationships, the influence of Uncle Tupelo is legendary.

Farrar and Tweedy’s relationship was combustible to say the least, and they called it quits in 1994. Tweedy would go on to form Wilco and Jay Farrar carried on with Son Volt, debuting Trace, in 1995. Over the course of seven Son Volt albums and a hefty solo output, Farrar has immersed himself in all types of roots music, from folk to crunching rock. Now, with a new album “Notes of Blue”, scheduled for release February 17th 2017.

Farrar delivers a collection of songs inspired by the giants of Mississippi blues. two songs from Notes of Blue, “Back Against the Wall” and “Lost Souls” .