Saturday, March 23, 2013

Album of the Week: Son Volt "Honky Tonk" (2013)

You may have read some of the writing on this album already.  Most of the articles go something like this:

  • ·         Jay Farrar was in Uncle Tupelo.
  • ·         This is his “Bakersfield” album.
  • ·         It’s the best album since [insert name of writer’s favorite, usually Trace].

Let’s unpack this for a minute.

First of all, why mention Uncle Tupelo?  It’s been 20 years since their final album.  I’d guess that all of their fans know that Tweedy formed Wilco and Farrar formed Son Volt.  If Farrar was a career sideman, then letting people know his past might be helpful.  But he wasn’t.  He was a primary songwriter and singer for that band.  Uncle Tupelo fans know who Jay Farrar is.  And new fans?  Are there new fans of Uncle Tupelo?  At this point I don’t know when I’ve heard anyone under the age of 40 mention them.  (And the over 40s don’t exactly talk about them all the time.)  I seriously doubt that these alleged new fans even exist.

Secondly, the Bakersfield talk is just garbled reiterations of promotional hype.  In interviews, Farrar has talked about taking a recent interest in the pedal steel guitar, specifically in Ralph Mooney’s playing.  Mooney played extensively for Merle Haggard in the 60s, so that’s how Bakersfield gets in the mix.  But in my mind, the Bakersfield sound was created more by the telecasters of Don Rich & Buck Owens than Mooney’s pedal steel playing.  (That’s not to take anything away from Mooney.  He helped make Haggard & Waylon stars.  He’s clearly on the short list of great pedal steel players.)
But Honky Tonk doesn’t really sound like a Bakersfield record.    If anything, the emphasis on ballads & waltzes make it seem more derived from the Ernest Tubb Texas tradition.  It doesn’t have that poppy influence that Buck Owens popularized in the 60s.

On to the third point, “this is the best album since X”.  Maybe.  Somehow these sorts of statements always remind me of Dylan talk, where every album is the “best since Blood On the Tracks.  Honky Tonk is a really good album.  One of Farrar’s weaknesses has always been melody, or the lack thereof.  By integrating pedal steel and fiddle, Farrar has found a workaround.  His vocals are still the same, and tend to be monochromatic.  But the country elements bring melody into the mix.  It livens up his sonic palette, & is a change for the better.

No comments:

Post a Comment