"Straightaways" is the second album from one of the two bands formed from the ashes of the Peter Buck-produced country rock combo Uncle Tupelo (the other being Wilco, originators of one of the finest albums of this or any other year in the form of the marvellous "Being There"). Despite the bands name having possible shorthand connotations for some kind of swampy electric blues, Son Volt remain true to their roots with lashings of steel guitars, banjos, fiddles and harmonicas and suchlike, all wrapped around the gruff vocals and even gruffer songs of Jay Farrar.
Much as I like this album, I couldnt tell you why. The songs are interesting and impressive (without being flashy), the lyrics clearly audible but impenetrable in an early R.E.M. stylee, the whole being the kind of album that sounds terrific when youre listening to but find you cant remember a note of afterwards, a problem compounded by inevitable comparisons with Wilcos latest masterpiece. Still, for a different spin on contemporary country rock Son Volt are definitely at least the second best place to start looking.
SON VOLT Wide Swing Tremolo (Warner Bros.)
Son Volts third album sees them attempting to pull out from under the shadow cast by Wilco, the current home of Son Volt mainman Jay Farrars partner in Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy, whose last two long players have seen them carving up the history and future of traditional American rock ("Being There") and, in the company of Billy Bragg, shaping new music to accompany previously unheard Woody Guthrie lyrics ("Mermaid Avenue"). So this time around theres the harsh crackle of electricity behind Farrars comfortable, if unspectacular, country rock and vaguely impressionistic lyrics, emphasised by the dog-eared photograph of rows of valves on the cover and the production assistance of former Sugar bassist David Barbe.
Which makes "Wide Swing Tremolo" a fun and thoughtful, if not mind-etchingly memorable listen. They seem to be attempting to advance the genre, spicing tracks with fuzzy distortion or dropping in the odd forty second harmonica solo. And when theyre really good, songs such as "Driving The View" and "Streets That Time Walks" are perfectly presentable. If the works of Uncle Tupelo alumni are your bag, and youve already bought all the Wilco and Golden Smog albums, "Wide Swing Tremolo" certainly wont disappoint, but neither will it truly excite.
SON VOLT A Retrospective: 1995-2000 (Warner Bros./Rhino)
Like everything Jay Farrar touches, this 20 track summation of Son Volt Mk 1s career - a reformed band featuring a completely different lineup, Farrar excepted, picked up the baton again with the predictably fine Okemah And The Melody Of Riot earlier this year has honesty and integrity down to its toenails. But, and its a sizeable caveat, amiable as Farrars songs appear on listening think Document-era R.E.M. stretched to the outer limits of the alt.country its a struggle to recall them once the disc is snugly ensconced back in its case.
Perhaps the cause of this is Farrars lyrical modus operandi. Eschewing conventional narrative, he builds up songs an image at a time, relying on an impressionistic accretion that, whilst technically commendable, doesnt make for the kind of tunes youll be hearing milkmen whistle on the Clapham omnibus. Difficult to really engage with, what they do they do beautifully, but they wont be saying anything to you about your life. Consider, for example, the glorious mesh of imagery from which Windfall is formed: Switch it over AM, searching for a truer sound/Cant recall the call letters, steel guitar and settle down/Catchin an all night station, somewhere in Louisiana/Sounds like 1963 but for now, sound like heaven. Its lovely, but it certainly aint pop music. Maybe thats an accusation that could equally be levelled against early R.E.M., but with the Volt theres no mumbled mystery keeping the lyrics enigmatic, their honesty perhaps sealing their downfall.
Unsurprisingly, its the covers included here that work best, although Im inevitably biased by the fact that one of them, Big Stars Holocaust, is of a song originally found on an album I treasure above any other, which Farrar treats to an appropriately wracked, desolate rendition. Aint No More Cane, a Leadbelly song popularised by The Basement Tapes, is slow, stately and dignified; Open All Night transforms the Springsteen tune into weeping, swaying country music, half a world away from its New Jersey turnpike setting. A sepia-tinted version of Woody Guthries Ive Got To Know originally lived behind the closing credits of the Tim Robbins political satire Bob Roberts; as Robbins refused to release a soundtrack album, fearing the right-wing folk songs that constituted the majority of the films accompaniment would be taken out of context, it makes its debut appearance on disc here.
Of Farrars own material, theres something twilight-luminous about the Hammond that surges behind Back Into Your World. The rich, warm country-rock hues of Creosote are perhaps their closest approach to Flying Burrito Brothers territory, and scant preparation for the distorted, driven Straightface that immediately follows.
Bustling with demos, rarities and previously unreleased tracks, A Retrospective: 1995-2000 charts a commendable course through the original bands three studio albums, whilst still providing interest for fans whove bought them all already. And if you havent, it might conceivably be all the Son Volt you could ever need.