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
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
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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