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Son Volt
Honky Tonk
Rounder Records
www.sonvolt.net


This record, it seems, has been a long time coming. When Jay Farrar left Uncle Tupelo he took a decidedly more country turn than did his co-conspirators. The first couple Son Volt records were alternative country gems, filled with acoustic guitars, down home rhythms, and great, gritty lead lines. Then the band turned a bit more towards rock'n'roll and even touched on some Memphis soul. But Honky Tonk finds Son Volt mining the ground that Farrar has been cultivating over his last few side projects; this record finds the man square in the middle of real, honest to God, country music.

The very first thing one hears on the album is fiddle, followed by a beautiful acoustic guitar. The drums lay back, low in the mix, and are hardly noticeable on the record at all. “Brick Walls” continues the trend, featuring the very high lonesome sound of the pedal steel guitar courtesy of long-time Son Volt collaborator Mark Spencer. The track wouldn't seem out of place on a jukebox from a 1950's honky tonk as Farrar softly croons, “There's more brick walls than bridges on the way to your heart.” It is not until “Down The Highway” that the sound turns back to a decidedly Son Volt/Jay Farrar type alternative country sound and less of an overtly traditional country sound. It's a classic sound, and a song that could have easily been settled in on Trace, right next to “Windfall.” Stepping out for a more west coast feel, “Bakersfield” recalls a bit of that famous sound, but minus the twangy guitars that that movement was known for. Farrar does a great job of invoking the feeling of the music from the 1950s and '60s, without duplicating the sound exactly; that is, until the baritone solo kicks in with its loose beautiful twang... and even though it is over too soon, the song is firmly established as a fine piece of country music.

Farrar and company soar into mellower, folkier territory on “Livin' On” before turning things back into a bit more country honk on “Tears Of Change”. The band really covers a lot of ground within the umbrella of American country music on Honky Tonk and there are some real cool spots of music. If you come to this record expecting to hear distorted guitars and sharp drumming, however, you will be sorely disappointed. But when the record wraps up with the cool tremelo-heavy swells of “Shine On”, the listener is left with the feeling that they have traversed the American west in all its glory, heartache, heat, pain, and blissful wonder. The songs are brilliantly played, evoking more imagery and feeling than most modern music can even hope for.

-David DeVoe

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