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Son Volt
American Central Dust
Rounder Records
www.sonvolt.net


Who was the rat bastard that coined the term Americana? Whoever it may have been, I'd like to tar and feather their entire body, take them to the town square and have them flogged with a copy of Webster's Dictionary. The crime is not truly severe or overly heinous; no, it's that the guilty person created one of the most over used clichés in all of writing, music criticism or otherwise. I will not use it in my review of Son Volt's great new album American Central Dust. I will stand firm, I will resist. At the half way point of 2009, Jay Farrar and crew have released the Album Of The Year and not one that is the hackneyed Americana. This album is simply America.

The album is dark and brooding one minute and happy the next. Dust is like a woman on the verge of losing her mind or one that just realized that she's fallen in love. In some cases, that can be the same woman at the same time. Farrar's songs and style embraces that woman and even buys her flowers. Jay Farrar is one of the founding fathers of the new wave of Alt.Country. Whether he was paving new ground with Jeff Tweedy (later to be front man of the acclaimed Wilco) in Uncle Tupelo or charting a new course with solo records and the great output of his band Son Volt, Farrar has never failed to release quality music and in doing so, has proven that he is one of the finest songwriters of my generation.

This trend has continued with American Central Dust. It's greatness lies in its weighty darkness; a statement of a downtrodden America in a very Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska kind of way. Few can spin tales like the ones to be found here (The Boss and Steve Earle are the only names that rush to the front of my brain); it is storytelling like Craig Finn of the media-championed Hold Steady only wishes he could pull off. Yes, I've gone on and on about the songwriting prowess on this record and I should give several individual examples but frankly, there is no stand out line, phrase or song. The tracks are all equally moving, dramatic and perfectly flawed. American Central Dust is not a perfect album, it is not the Rubber Soul of Alternative Country but it is a dirty diamond in the Dust Bowl of Rock.

The level of writing and playing on the record is phenomenal. From the opening track "Dynamite" ( "this love is like/ celebrating fourth of July with dynamite") to the collapsing industrial complex ("When The Wheels Don't Move") through a tribute to Gram Parsons' old friend Keith Richards ("Cocaine and Ashes") and the most haunting song about a shipwreck since Gordon Lightfoot's " Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald", the tear-soaked riverboat tragedy "Sultana". Dust is equal parts history lesson, rock record, walk down an old dirt road and a day trip through Farrar's Faulkner-esque mind.

It is also a showcase to bands on how one surrounds themselves with great players. Dave Bryson (drums), Andrew Duplantis (bass), Chris Masterson (lead guitar) and Mark Spencer ( keyboards and steel guitar) all know their places and how to hold them down. Each is a king of their instrument and make for a spiritedly groove-filled band to help bring to life the sorrow and darkness filled words and phrasing of Farrar.

I will stop short in saying that Farrar stands on a level with Young and Dylan. That would be crazy, that lonely mesa is only big enough for two giants to stand upon. But Jay should be recognized as a documenter of the American Experience; a rock star with a country soul, a folkie with an amp turned to 11. It would've been easy for Farrar to put together a Wilco-like band when forming Son Volt and in some ways he did, in that both groups appreciate melody, roots music, Woody Guthrie and rock 'n' roll. But unlike Tweedy who has flirted with greatness (the albums A.M. and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), Jay Farrar delivers an album in American Central Dust that whispers and screams to the listening world, " I am a songwriter's songwriter… I am better than Jeff! Wilco is Son Volt's bitch!"

And folks, it isn't bragging if it's true.

-Danny R. Phillips

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