While 2005’s Okemah and the Melody of Riot made for a potent reboot for Son Volt, that record hasn’t proven indicative of the band’s overall direction in the years since. Its follow-up, The Search, was overstuffed with ill-fitting production tricks, and the band’s latest effort, American Central Dust, returns to the more pared-down alt-country of Son Volt’s 1990s incarnation. While frontman Jay Farrar was instrumental in defining the alt-country scene, the problem with Dust is that, in the intervening years since Son Volt first rose to prominence, that scene has been bogged down by countless dreary, soundalike albums and an exhausting self-seriousness.
Dust too often falls into both of those traps. Farrar has always had a didactic streak, but songs like “Down to the Wire,” “Cocaine and Ashes,” and “When the Wheels Don’t Move” are over-written in a rambling prose style that simply doesn’t work in the context of a traditional-leaning country sound that’s known for its restraint and economy of language. “Sultana,” an attempt at a historical narrative, awkwardly shoehorns verbose lyrics into its lines as Farrar mumbles and drones over a monotonous dirge of a backing track.
It’s when Farrar dials it back that the album works better. The honky-tonk shuffle of “Dust of Daylight” makes for a classic country weeper; as Farrar notes, “Love is fog and you stumble every step of the way.” “No Turning Back” and closer “Jukebox of Steel” make excellent use of traditional country instruments in a raw, bar-rock style that strikes the most effective balance between the previous and the current incarnations of the band. It’s these tracks that play to Son Volt’s strengths that draw the album’s dour shortcomings into sharp relief.