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Son Volt
 Trace, Warner Bros. CD 9 46010-2, 1996

 Son of Uncle Tupelo

Like a trip down a long forgotten highway, Son Volt's debut has a timeless and familiar quality. Songwriter/frontman Jay Farrar, ex of the punkish roots band Uncle Tupelo, invokes the rich archetypes of America with songs of lost dreams and hope on the highways and byways of the Midwest. Alternating between plaintive country-folk ballads and more conventional rock tunes, the disc conjures up the ghosts of classic Neil Young (circa  After the Goldrush) or Gram Parsons. My favorites are the ballads, usually built upon spare acoustic guitar but layered with steel guitar, fiddle, dobro, and banjo. Throughout, the band has a loose, ragged feel that perfectly suits the material.

Farrar's wistful lyrics are keepers, thoughtful without pretense. The road is a unifying theme, from the romantic utopia of "Windfall" ("Both feet on the floor/Both hands on the wheel/May the wind take your troubles away") to the escapist wanderlust of "Tear Stained Eye" ("I would meet you anywhere/Western sun meets the air/We'll hit the road/Never looking behind"). "Ten Second News" is a morose ditty that lifts the riff from Neil's "Old Man" to tell a tale of entropy ("Only you'll ever know/As day by day disappears/You scorch and drown alive/Never knowing why").

When pushing for the easy ennui of a country ballad, Son Volt is dead on. Elsewhere, the garage rock numbers like the radio friendly "Drown" and "Catching On" are less convincing. The electric guitar crunch sounds too generic, and Farrar's voice seems strained on the uptempo numbers. But Son Volt's songwriting is so good they may stumble, but they never fall. Trace's melancholy charm conveys hope for the future in the face of an ambiguous present. For that alone we should be thankful. --  Scott Boggan

song titles

Windfall | Live Free | Tear Stained Eye | Route | Ten Second News | Drown | Loose String | Out of the Picture | Catching On | Too Early | Mystifies Me

of related interest

Uncle Tupelo
 Anodyne, Sire 45424-2 CD, 1993 (43:25)
A moody band mixing punk, pop, country and bluegrass, Uncle Tupelo broke up in 1994 just as their influence was being felt. This, their last album, is a great place to start. Founded by Son Volt's Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, who went on to form the group Wilco.

Copyright © 1996 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.