Watching Son Volt recently perform songs from this new album, having also seen Wilco just a few weeks earlier, it occurred to me that the bands are no longer two sides of the same coin – they have become totally separate coins.
While both bandleaders – Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, respectively – share a great antecedent in Uncle Tupelo, they have certainly diverged in markedly different directions. Given this, it now seems completely unnecessary to compare them; it is wonderful to be able to savour what each has to offer.
Son Volt’s show in Austin was, I thought, fantastic: 19 songs in an hour and a quarter with 7 songs from the new album. Farrar, who always had an emotive voice, is singing better than ever and the alternating pedal steel and fiddle attack elevates the band’s sound to new heights. I raved about them 6 months ago at Hardly Strictly and they are an even more cohesive unit now.
While Wilco has become a critic’s favourite, Son Volt has trodden a rootsier and rougher path – and maybe one that is not so immediately alluring. Honky Tonk should shift the balance to some degree because it is one of Farrar’s most accomplished albums to date (and here he is the auteur).
Farrar freely acknowledges the inspiration of Gram Parsons and Honky Tonk certainly reflects Parson’s approach. There is more than just a nod to Bakersfield, in fact, one track is titled after the town. It’s country but with a contemporary spin – exactly the sort of thing Parsons did.
Of course, Farrar’s voice does not resemble that of Buck Owens and others of his ilk but what it does share with them are the evocative qualities that we associate with the great country singers.
Last year, Nick Lowe talked about how he thought of other singers performing the songs that he was writing. Farrar says that he did not envisage anyone else when he was writing this latest batch of songs in just a couple of weeks. Yet there are at least three songs on Honky Tonk that sound like instant country classics. It is almost as if they have been written for some of the legends.
‘Seawall’ would be perfect for Willie Nelson, ‘Brick Walls’ could be a hit for Merle Haggard and Emmylou Harris would do a killer version of ‘Tears Of Change.’ Which is certainly not meant to demean Farrar’s own ‘high and lonesome’ delivery; rather, it is the ultimate tribute to his song writing.
In the long run Honky Tonk might be seen as a landmark album for Jay Farrar. It would be great to see Son Volt at the Grand Old Opry!