Since Son Volt’s 1995 debut, Trace, Jay Farrar has sometimes had trouble getting out of his own way. But on Notes of Blue, the band’s eighth album, he largely sidesteps the very traits—his alternately authoritative and catatonic molasses voice, his resolute adherence to folk traditionalism, his at times clunky, esoteric lyrics—that have both defined and inhibited his work over the last two decades, resulting in some of his most direct, concise, and uptempo music in years. The album is still very much indebted to the folk tradition; as one might surmise from its hackneyed title, the album is heavily influenced by the blues, primarily of the ’20s and ’30s Delta variety. Farrar mostly avoids rote imitation by hearkening back to the approach he used to take with traditional music in his Uncle Tupelo days: reimagining the genre with teeth-rattling, punk-influenced electric guitar and displaying the occasional willingness to bend folk conventions.
Notes of Blue’s first two songs initially make it seem as though the album is going to be a mid-’90s throwback. Son Volt’s lineup has been a revolving door over the years, acting more as a dictator-ruled outlet for Farrar’s shifting creative whims. On the lilting opener, “Promise the World,” the band convincingly mimics the original lineup’s sound. Jason Kardong’s pristine pedal steel and Gary Hunt’s husky fiddle sound like they’re being performed by Dave Boquist, who last played with Son Volt in 1999. Adding to the nostalgia is the fact that the song itself—gentle, soulful, and confident—could have easily been lifted from Trace’s formidable tracklist, both in terms of both style and substance. The loping strummer “Back Against the Wall” likewise could be a lost single from the same era, with the added cherry on top of Farrar’s own jagged, Neil Young-influenced lead guitar, a source of grit and unpredictability that’s been sorely missed in nearly all of his post-Uncle Tupelo work.
After that opening salvo, though, Notes of Blue is driven more by stylistic immersion than a renaissance of Trace-level songwriting. While this results in the occasional lapse into bland formula (namely the joyless dirge “Midnight” and the drifty acoustic piece “Cairo and Southern”), Farrar for the most part sounds utterly invigorated by his new sense of direction. It’s surprising to hear alt-country’s consummate stoic introvert sound so vocally animated—at least for him—on songs like the short, noisy rockers “Lost Souls” and “Static.”
Most of the riffs here are simplistic variations on a century-old formula established by Mississippi Fred McDowell and the Delta’s other bottleneck-slide greats, while many of the lyrics verge on regurgitated blues clichés about hard luck, bad women, and impending death. But hearing Farrar electrify those musical bromides in his own way is thrilling enough on its own. It’s why a song like “Sinking Down” deserves a prominent place in the all-time Farrar canon. The rudimentary but gritty pulsing slide riff and the angelic Appalachian backwoods-style bridge (which consists of a near quote of “Moonshiner,” an old folk tune Farrar already covered famously with Uncle Tupelo) are both based on archaic musical forms. But when he combines the two styles and sells it with his world-weary Voice of God intonation, he can transcend his obvious roots. While Farrar’s willingness or ability to draw from that same well may have faded over the years, Notes of Blue proves there’s at least a little something left down there.