Son Volt returns to rootsy sound of early albums on 'American Central Dust'

When Jay Farrar reconvened Son Volt for the 2005 album “Okemah and the Melody of Riot,” he did so almost as if he had something to prove. And maybe he did: it was Son Volt’s first new release after a hiatus of seven years, and circumstances had forced Farrar to recruit a new cast of supporting musicians to play on a batch of snarling rock songs with distinct political overtones.

Whatever he set out to prove, “Okemah” was evidence aplenty that Son Volt, regardless of lineup, remained a vibrant and distinctive musical force — a point reinforced by 2007’s more varied and experimental set “The Search” (and its more essential expanded vinyl edition, “On Chant and Strum”).

Now, for the first time since reactivating Son Volt, Farrar returns to the rootsy sound of the band’s early years on “American Central Dust” (Rounder). It’s very much in the vein of “Trace,” the group’s seminal 1995 debut, full of subtle acoustic songs with understated — but deeply felt — lyrics.

Farrar’s music has always borne the mark of an old soul, and these songs are some of his finest in a career that began more than 20 years ago with Uncle Tupelo. Album opener “Dynamite” is a rare meditation on the explosive properties of love (he comments on the song here), while the wrenching piano ballad “Cocaine and Ashes” comes from the exhausted but triumphant perspective of Keith Richards.

Rich, warm electric guitar wraps around the acoustic chords of “No Turning Back,” which rings out as a road-weary statement of purpose; and growling guitars frame the cautionary Rust-Belt tale “When the Wheels Don’t Move” — a stark requiem for the pre-bailout era.

Those songs stand at opposite ends of the broad spectrum of Farrar’s songwriting: impressionistic evocations of America and pointed, if allegorical, social commentary. Though his lyrical approach is often oblique, his considerable skill as a storyteller is abundantly clear.

— Text by Eric R. Danton, photo by J. Wagner & S. Waugh

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